The Ricepunk Manifesto

As a writer, I am powerless. In the face of armies and governments and foreign media corporations with overblown pundits, I am just one beige soul with a keyboard.

But I have my words. And while I cannot dispatch these pocket tyrants I can strike at the stories they build. And because we are Homo Narrator, and not Homo Sapiens, if I can change the story, I can change how people remember us. How they react.

So, in the light of years of craft conversations with Robin Low, Navin Weeraratne, and R.R. Virdi; in light of events around the 2019 Nebula Awards; in light the 2019 Easter Attack, and the Western world’s response to it, I declare the following.


THE RICEPUNK MANIFESTO

WHO ARE WE?

We are those from the teeming lands.

We are chameleons. We eat rice and burgers. We drink arrack and whiskey. We are the East and the West, the ancient and the new, the bastard lovechild of machined denim and handloomed cotton.

We are paradoxes. We live chaotic lives in chaotic worlds, born into difference, and we carry difference with us. We shift under identities that fall apart on closer examination. We take labels and discard them. We are at home in the highest office and the lowest tea-shack on the road.

We are shapeshifters. We live through freedom and intolerance; individuals and communities; unity and difference; and we thread the grey needle between these lines every day of our lives, as we have for thousands of years.

We have no American dream, no stiff upper lip, no #eatpraylove, input-output myth. We are those who are detained at airports. Our governments betray us, and those with friends in high places run amok. We live and die knowing our deepest voices will be drowned out by the shallowest of those elsewhere. When they are heard, they are pigeonholed into caricatures, robbed of all nuance.

WE ARE RICEPUNKS.

Ever since the first days of mass media the narratives we have seen, in paper, on screen, have relegated us to the role of court jesters and zoo exhibits. Our cultures are by turns quaint and full of exotic wisdom, and in the next breath they are savage and backward. Our tales are bastardized by both the patronizing and the excessively woke, turned into cannon fodder in battles we care little for.

We are diversity taken to the thousandth power – not in the weak checkbox just-another-uniform crap of the West, but diversity born of new world orders colliding head-on with old orders that trace their roots through centuries, that embed themselves in every facet, from language, to art, to music, to politics.

We are societies bound not by one utopia, or two, but by tens, hundreds, thousands. We worship not one god, but millions. We are gleaming cities with police states and sprawling slums built by democracies.

We are pride and humiliation, scattered and united, by turns modern and advanced and by turns ancient and decrepit, an assembly of systems that stretch across thousands of years, a Frankenstein’s monster stitched at scales never fully grasped.

WE ARE RICEPUNKS.

Our parents are people that have dwelt in our pasts; burrowing into our myths, reminiscing of times when we were great.  We are here to turn the gaze outward. To imagine multi-cultural, multi-polar worlds, not built around one truth, but several. To imagine new world orders; to describe ten thousand utopias, each different from the last; to bring variety to a world sorely lacking.

We are here to take back the narrative, to show the world our side, to break our stories out of the zoo they have been put in to and help them regain their rightful place in history. Our difference is a competitive edge, not something to be ashamed of.

We understand that this task is not easy.

We understand that much of what we want to say will not be heard. We might be born into a rigged game, where the house always wins, and the cards have been dealt.

But the rapid democratization of information, the power of social media, the ready availability of tools and technology for the production and distribution of our stories have made it possible for us, now more than ever, to fight our battles. Our stories will be heard, one way or the other.

Let us play.

By

Read More

The Poetry Machine

I’ve always admired the translations of Chinese poetry – I’m no expert on the field, but there are two poets named Du Fu and Li Bai that I really like. They were legendary masters from the Great Tang Dynasty, and (if the translations are accurate), they had a phenomenal talent for freezing a moment and capturing that particular slice of time with their words; their poems read like a string of Polaroids stretched across a riverbank.

Here, for example, is a Du Fu poem. Among other things, there’s a certain simplicity here: one strong emotion resonates through, and unlike much of the English verse I grew up with, it’s firmly in the present tense:

A LONG CLIMB

In a sharp gale from the wide sky apes are whimpering,
Birds are flying homeward over the clear lake and white sand,
Leaves are dropping down like the spray of a waterfall,
While I watch the long river always rolling on.
I have come three thousand miles away. Sad now with autumn
And with my hundred years of woe, I climb this height alone.
Ill fortune has laid a bitter frost on my temples,
Heart-ache and weariness are a thick dust in my wine.

Which I suppose is why this appeals to me – there’s a rare clarity here, even if the translation might be inaccurate.

So the Tang poets seemed like the right place to start with for my experiment with machine-generated art (and besides, the excellent GWERN already did the usual English[1]). Right now, I’ve snuck away for a few hours from a my statistical models to peek at the code I set to run this morning.

Among those of us who work with machine learning, the work I’ve put into this whole project is trivial: a tiny dataset, a cup of coffee, a few lines of Python code, and a single cigarette while I waited for OpenAI’s transformer-based generation model [2] to download.

The OpenAI model, like most neural networks, can be thought of as a rough analogue of a human brain – a collection of artificial neurons strung in layers, lighting up as fragments of thoughts (inputs) pass between one layer and the next. We teach it by pointing it at something and telling it to produce something similar. The boffins at OpenAI have decreed that their full model is too complex and human-like to release – God knows what people might do with it in this age of fake news – and so they’ve banged the drum and let out only a tiny, child version of their beast, the GPT2 117M.

No matter. We shall use the child. I’ve set it to train on a collection of Tang poetry, and given my personal biases, both Li Bai and Du Fu feature prominently in here. It has digested and spat out some poetry at me, and I, acting in a role much like a subeditor at a newspaper, am going over copy turned in by the new journalist.

Here are our first results: six poems handpicked out of ten efforts.  My edits have been to delete no more than two lines per poem.

ENDLESS YEARNING I

I am endlessly yearning
To be in Baok Sha.
…Insects hum of autumn by the gold brim of the well;
A thin frost glistens like little mirrors on my cold mat;
The high lantern flickers; and. deeper grows my longing.
I lift the shade and, with many a sigh, gaze upon the moon,
Single as a flower, centred from the clouds.
Above, I see the blueness and deepness of sky.
Below, I see the greenness and the restlessness of water….
Heaven is high, earth wide; bitter between them flies my sorrow.
Can I dream through the gateway, over the mountain?
Endless longing
Breaks my heart.

ENDLESS YEARNING II

The sun has set, and a mist is in the flowers;
And the moon grows very white and people sad and sleepless.
Would that it might follow the spring wind to Yanran Mountain.
Since nobody can bear to you the burden of my song,
I think of you far away, beyond the blue sky,
And my eyes that once were sparkling
Are now a well of tears.
… Oh, if ever you should doubt this aching of my heart,
Here in my bright mirror, come back and look at me!

This isn’t the best poetry I’ve seen, but it isn’t the worst. Parents, I understand, try to get children to write poetry all the time – mine certainly did – but it generally takes many years before the little bundle of joy stops shitting their diapers and decides to take on Robert Frost.  I’ve spent maybe three hours of my time on this so far, and most of that was spent sorting out code issues.

THE HARD ROAD

I would cross the Yellow River, but ice chokes the ferry;
I would climb the Taihang Mountains, but the sky is blind with snow….
I would sit and poise a fishing-pole, lazy by a brook —
But I suddenly dream of riding a boat, sailing for the sun….
Journeying is hard,
There are many turnings —
Which am I to follow?….
I will mount a long wind some day, and break the heavy waves
And set my cloudy sail straight and bridge the deep, deep sea.

DOWN ZHONGNAN MOUNTAIN

Down the blue mountain in Feng district
You have found your home.
The wind is beating at us, beating at our ears,
And we see only the dark clouds;
We hear only the low wind rustling grasses
Under the quiet river;
And the farmers all are returning what they have,
Washing their fields and burning them.

The GPT2-117M model seems, to mine untrained eyes, to have picked up the ‘form’ of Tang poetry more efficiently. Some rote phrases are inevitable given how small this dataset is, but I’m surprised at how little there are. With a few careful cuts – a line pruned here and there – I can bring out the impression of one overarching emotion. I’m particularly proud of this:

THE LAMENT OF THE ATTACKING EMPEROR

Soldiers are sent north to guard the City of Silk
And east to receive the rain from the Spears of Heaven.
The south runs its wall, the stars are rising,
And our footprints are three hundred miles away.
How can I bear to sweep them away?
A vanished river is forgotten by the people….
Who knows if it is still alive?
… Who knows if it ever was?

Those last two lines, I have to stress, are most definitely not mine.


There’s a man I keep coming back to whenever I see something like this, and that’s the chessmaster Gary Kasparov. Kasparov is possibly the greatest human chess player we have seen to date; from 1986 to 2005 he was the world’s best at the game.

In 1997, Kasparov was defeated by a machine – IBM’s Deep Blue. The move changed chess history [3], and I think – looking back – that’s really where the “human vs machine” fear really hit home. Ever since then, chessmasters – the human kind – have accepted getting thrashed by machines.

What did Kasparov do? Kasparov went away and made computer-aided chess work. He took human vs machine and made it human + machine. His thesis is in the title of his TED Talk – “Don’t fear intelligent machines; work with them” [4]. Today,  some of the world’s most powerful players are cyborgs – combinations of human players and machine intelligence – and they are damned difficult to beat [5].

I believe in this human + machine philosophy. Over the next year or so, I’m going to be launching more little experiments along this line. Let’s get see where it gets us.


A friend of mine, a mathematician, recently posited to me that the role of poetry was capture intricate emotion; I countered by saying the role of poetry was to convey information through the ordering of words as much as the words themselves.  But in both our arguments there was the implicit understanding that there was a poet, some creator with a sense of purpose, be it information or emotion.  I wonder if we can  have the same argument about this, or whether we have to start that argument again with several biases removed.


[1] https://www.gwern.net/RNN-metadata#finetuning-the-gpt-2-small-transformer-for-english-poetry-generation

[2] https://openai.com/blog/better-language-models/

[3] https://www.chess.com/article/view/deep-blue-kasparov-chess

[4] https://www.ted.com/talks/garry_kasparov_don_t_fear_intelligent_machines_work_with_them?language=en

[5] http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20151201-the-cyborg-chess-players-that-cant-be-beaten

*edit note: this article formerly read “GPT 2 110M” instead of “117M”. Fixed.

By

Read More

South Asian science fiction: roots, strains, influences, themes, and a personal re-examination

I first met my agent, Kanishka Gupta, on a cold afternoon in Delhi. February, 2018. It took me several tries to get to his place, because apparently he lives bang in the middle of Delhi’s military zone; to compensate, he rolled out a truly magnificent lunch spread, and over many sandwiches we discussed my writing and what I wanted to do next. One of the things that he said to me gave me pause: “you don’t write like other South Asians I’ve read. Or even South East. It’s very different.“.

I’ve had this rolling around in my head for a while. Was it language? Themes? The style, the texture? Obviously, my first instinct was to read more South / South East Asian SFF writers, to see how exactly I differed.  I wasn’t exactly convinced by the point: after all, the sheer diversity of South Asia is insane . . . it is strange to think that my voice, in the middle of four billion people, was somehow unique. Generally, we humans like to think that we are different and unique and all that, but as a whole we are rather predictable and comformist. But this neatly set the basis for a deeper exploration into common themes and styles from science fiction in South and South East Asia.

First, a disclaimer. As Waddell once noted,  ‘words like ”Southeast Asia” and ”unicorn” enable us to discuss topics about which we would not otherwise be able to hold a conversation.” Modify that to ‘South Asia’ and it still applies. This area is old, and it is rich in difference and diversity; this is merely a personal ramble through the history books, broad strokes rather than deep over something that would require a lifetime of study. That said, let’s begin.


Roots: South Asia

Science fiction work from South Asia is sparsely documented. To the best of my knowledge, two writers – both of whom I am fortunate to count as friends, albeit from a distance – have tried their level best, and done a decent job: Gautam Shenoy [1] and Mimi Mondal [2]. The histories they compile are slightly different and deserve reading in full, but they, and other sources, confirm a genesis set somewhere in the 18th century:

  1. Kylas Chunder Dutt (1835): A Journal of 48 hours in 1945, about an Indostan uprising against the colonial British
  2. Jagadananda Roy (1879) : Shukra Bhraman, about a Venus full of ape-like aliens
  3. Hemlal Dutta (1882) Rahashya, about a smart house
  4. Jagadish Chandra Bose (1896) : Niruddesher Kahini, about weather events
  5. Begun Rokeya Hossein (1905): Sultana’s dream, which flips the power dynamics and envisions a land ruled by a woman with men on lesser rungs on the social ladder

Bose is really the most prominent example here, his fame generated by his legendary life: a Calcutta Professor and old-school polymath who become a pioneer in several fields, from biophysics to early work on what eventually became WiFi. This story of his  is about a cyclone being quelled with a bottle of hair oil with a strange history[3]; the whole thing hinges on an approximation of what we later came to know as the butterfly effect.

It’s interesting to see the innovation here. Hossein wrote the first real piece of feminist science fiction: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland , which dreams up a utopian society consisting only of women, didn’t show up until ten years later. Bose’s story talks about the butterfly effect and did so before Ray Bradbury, though perhaps less clearly. Dutt seems to have been on point for his time; this was, after all, the 1930s, the decade where Mary Griffith produced Three Hundred Years Hence and Vladmir Odoevsky put out The Year 4338: Petersburg Letters.  Roy and Dutta  I cannot seem to find anywhere, but Dutta’s story speaks of  “A mansion completely automated and where technology is deified. Automatic doorbell, burglar alarms, brushes that clean suits mechanically are some of the innovations described in the story, and the tone is of wonder at the rapid automation of human lives.” [4]

Women ruling men, lone passengers controlling weather with ease, smart houses, the British being sent packing…these were utopic projections, then. This wasn’t that uncommon in the 1800s. Seeing the Industrial Revolution happen around you must have naturally prompted questions of “what happens next?” and “what should we aim for? Along wish that British trooper’s head, I mean?”

They were also worldbuilding exercises, rather than stories – the purpose, as far as I can make out, seems to be to paint a picture; the characters are there mostly just as excuses to gawk at the doors and windows. Camerapeople.  But this was a popular format in the 1800s – the novel was still on its way, the power of story and conflict had yet to be really explored in the genre.

The events around Indian independence, the ripple effects from the World Wars – these seem to blow a hole in the growth of scifi beyond this. Shenoy tracks a few in between, but acknowledges that language tensions made many of these stories inaccessible. Things start again with Amitav Ghosh (1995): the Calcutta Chromosome, a book that academics even now refer to when reviewing scifi from the region[5] (I haven’t read it yet).

For me, this history really picks up with Samit Basu (2004). Then we have what Shenoy calls the period of greatest hits; Anil Menon and Vandana Singh happen, weaving both myth and science together. And then there’s Tashan Mehta, Indrapamit Das, Shiv Ramdas and others.  South Asian science fiction from this era stands out to me for two things: the first is the seemingly wholehearted embrace of ‘speculative fiction’ as opposed to ‘science fiction’; a sort of acknowledgement of intertwining of science and fantasy in our lives.

I once went to a national science fair, as a young student, where one of the busiest booths was where an astrologer had hacked a scanner to realm palms and pass data to a Visual Basic program that generated horoscopes.  Fast forward ten years, and I was reading about the President / Legal Dictator of Sri Lanka consulting his astrologer to hold elections. [6]. This sort of mysticism is a part and parcel of life; in a sense, religion and spirituality is the true cyborg of South Asian societies, adapting faster than the humans can.

The second thing is a sense of characters tethered by the societies they live in. I think the most brilliant example of this is from Samit Basu’s Turbulence, which explores mutant and superheroes; in it ,  Tia’s superpowers – the ability to replicate herself at will – come from the oppression of wanting to live different lives, but being unable to because of family attachments. Likewise, his Kalki is worshipped as a god-avatar and slotted neatly into prophecies.


 

Okay.

In general, I can see why my writing might elicit a comment like Kanishka’s. You see, despite me having read these works, I wouldn’t call them influences in any way. I’ve done one novel in the old tradition: Numbercaste.  Patrick Udo, who most people read as an empty, slightly sociopathic narrator, was meant to be a blank-slate reporter describing the future as it came along. He’s really at a second remove from the conflict in the story (people either love it or hate it).

But this was not intentional – it was the only style I knew how to write at the time. I was a journalist. I wrote long tech features and somewhat political investigations written in the gonzo style [7]. If anything, Numbercaste hews to David Eggers and Cory Doctorow more than it does to anyone.

My short stories, on review, are strange in that they have very little of the social bonds tugging on South Asians. This is perhaps because of my characters. My friend Navin Weeraratne says that “you write alienated people … because you feel alienated.” Certainly I like exploring people who are forever on the outer circles of their societies, peeping in: in the Inhuman Race, all of my protagonists are the same … mistfits, outcasts, rejects. I like exploring the world through characters like this. Perhaps it’s a large function of who I am as a person, and perhaps I have not truly dissociated my character from myself. None of them subscribe to the mysticism, either. I avoid it. I dislike it. I dream of more rational people and wake up knowing we will never have this; we are pan narrans, not homo sapiens.

But on the whole, I think, something more complex is due.  I think I need to immerse myself again in people – even the mystics – before I make myself too alien for my own origins.


 

 

 

[1] https://factordaily.com/indian-science-fiction/

[2] https://www.tor.com/2018/01/30/a-short-history-of-south-asian-speculative-fiction-part-i/

[3]https://web.archive.org/web/20140905235504/http://strangehorizons.com/2013/20130930/3bose-f.shtml

[4] https://www.lehigh.edu/~amsp/2006/05/early-bengali-science-fiction.html

[5] https://www.thedailystar.net/book-reviews/efflorescence-south-asian-sci-fi-1512136

[6] https://www.hindustantimes.com/world/mahinda-rajapaksa-s-astrologer-who-advised-early-election-packs-bags/story-ioP1WkF9Zcpz87mb6FntsO.html

[7] https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/this-is-the-colombo-port-city/

 

By

Read More

Mammals and dinosaurs

A light analysis of the current state of the publishing industry, including the ripple effects that indie publishing can have on traditional models. Featuring big indie collaborations, warring states, James Patterson, and more.

The Wild West of indie publishing is settling down. Here’s a glimpse of [what I think] is the future. Thoughts distilled over multiple conversations with R.R. Virdi, a great friend and occasional writing partner.

Firstly, a brief primer: there are five big companies that own much of traditional publishing (TradPub) today[4]. Regardless of what imprint you see on a cover, the book in your hands is most likely from Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, McMillan or Hachette. They are megacorps. Here, for example, is HarperCollins, which publishes my work.

From Al Almossawi’s excellent overview of Big Five subsidiaries (https://almossawi.com/big-five-publishers/)

And then there is indie publishing. While articulate naysayers still exist[1] (most recently with regard to Maroc Koskas’ Renaudot-longlisted novel[2]), indie publishing not a tradition new to literature – Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf all self-published their work[3]. Let us therefore burn snobbery at the stake and read. I’ll lump two types of indies into one umbrella: small indie presses that go after particular styles and genres[5], and indie authors themselves.

It’s very difficult to achieve fame and fortune with physical books in the indie space – one needs to invest in printing, shipping, warehousing and all manner of capital-intensive projects, not to mention breaking into the distribution channels traditionally owned by TradPub. These are meatspace[6] problems.

With the rise of Amazon and other storefronts, these problems have been largely solved for a sizeable number of readers. This is what I think of as the Amazon model:

1. A successful digital marketplace for authors and readers to sell and buy books (Kindle + Store)

2. Free tooling provided by the marketplace host so that the author can take a manuscript into publication-ready form (KDP)

3. Discovery functionality provided by the marketplace host at no visible cost to either seller or producer (Search)

4. A publishing model where the author makes the bulk of the royalty revenue (70%) and the marketplace host (Amazon) keeps a smaller sum. This is in marked contrast to the the traditional publishing model, where the author makes an average 7.5% on royalties.

Various services can hook into different parts of this ecosystem (Draft2Digital, Reedsy, Vellum, Mailchimp et al) to provide superior functionality; however, the basics exist and an author can finish a manuscript, neatly evade the meatspace basics, and be read from Colombo to Columbia in under a minute. Thanks to the higher royalties, said author can earn far more per reader than a traditionally published author.

Thanks to this Amazon model, self-published authors like Hugh Howey, Mark Dawson[7], LJ Ross and others became extremely financially successful[8].

As of late, traditional authors have begun to make inroads into this world. One of them is Brandon Sanderson, the living juggernaut of epic fantasy. Myke Cole was thinking about it as far back as 2013. Mark Dawson, a former trad-pubbed author who is now a key figure in the thriller genre, argues that trad publishing could be the new form of vanity publishing. There are many others, and not enough space to list them all.

Why this switch?

This 2018 piece from the New Statesman[9] provides a great summary of the situation: 

“…a dramatic report published by Arts Council England (ACE) in December has raised the spectre of the highbrow novelist as an endangered species – and started a combative debate about how, if at all, writers should be funded.

The study claims falling book prices, sales and advances mean that literary authors are struggling more than ever to make a living from their fiction. In today’s market, selling 3,000 copies of your novel is not unrespectable – but factor in the average hardback price of £10.12 and the retailer’s 50 per cent cut, and just £15,000 remains to share between publisher, agent and author. No wonder that the percentage of authors earning a full-time living solely from writing dropped from 40 per cent in 2005 to 11.5 per cent in 2013. To avoid novel-writing becoming a pursuit reserved for those with independent means, ACE suggests emergency intervention: direct grants for authors and better funding for independent publishers and other organisations.

Simply put, it takes a certain amount of financial security to be able to put one’s feet up and keep the pen on paper. Traditional publishing no longer provides this surety.

It’s easy to picture such indie publishing as a sort of digital Wild West, then, where lone authors venture forth into the desert heat, keyboards blazing, and claimed their fortunes, eager to defy the trope of the famous but starving bohemian artiste.[10]  

Franchises are the endgame

However, indie publishing has evolved beyond being just an avenue where one can publish anything and earn a living. The Kindle Gold Rush, if it ever happened, is an event of the past.

Game industry consultant Christian Fennesbach, in a fine opinion piece, observed that in video games, franchises – and the franchise potential of intellectual property – are key to longevity[11]. He posits four key elements required for an intellectual property to become a franchise:

1. Characters that are interesting and memorable

2. A fictional universe big enough for more than one story

3. A recognisable visual style

4. Different, but not too different

This is wisdom that has long been circulating in the publishing community in some form or the other (including the phrase you have to write a series). In the indie space, from my observation, this franchising happens along a more organic route:

Often an author creates a popular, genre-focused Intellectual Property (often in the form of a fictional universe with strong characters). The reader demand for it outstrips the supply. This is, in effect, a franchise with potential.

The author then goes on to collaborate with multiple co-authors to produce a series of novels, with the founding author playing the role of publisher and chief creative. They provide the vision and/or story outline, does a smaller percentage of the writing and the co-author takes on the larger share of the work.

Today, the indie publishing space seems to be trending towards such collaborative publishers (CoPubs). CoPubs function a bit like medieval foundries – a master smith at the center, aided by a number of lesser-known apprentices. The business model is often structured so that partners generally have long-term skin in the game: advances are rare and small when existent; profits are derived from royalties, split along much more equitable models than traditional publishers. I’ve seen contracts that go anywhere from 30% to 50% – large figures compared to the 7% of trad pub.

Elven smiths reforging the shards of Narsil into Anduril.

Less often there are equal partners in the enterprise – two smiths hammering away in a collaborative fashion, sharing half the workload and half the profits.

A key advantage of this model is speed and continuity. Fans benefit from the extremely rapid rapid release cycles possible with this method, and the CoPub itself can pivot quickly to add, expand or modify stories with sales potential. As the CoPub earns, it invests in advertising – primarily digital – to push its books.

In a sense this is similar to James Patterson’s business model[12], the fan-service of Charles Dickens[13] and, more recently, the business models behind Robert Ludlum or K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs[14].

The most successful CoPubs perfectly marry Fennesbach’s’s four elements to speed. Just as Patterson outsells Stephen King and John Grisham combined, CoPubs can outsell solo operations with less effort. Few single authors can compete with the prodigious output of work in a franchise that fans ardently love.

The most known within indie circles is perhaps LMBPN Publishing,[15] which operates Michael Anderle’s Kurtherian Gambit universe. Sterling and Stone[16], WaterHouse Press[17], the Nick Cole-and-Jason Anspach Galaxy’s Edge and Chris Kennedy’s Four Horsemen – co-created with Mark Wandrey – are others.

The Warring States

A light analysis would suggest that CoPubs become the new traditional publishers. More authors gravitate to CoPubs, profit accumulates, imprints acquire capital. The CoPubs cast down the Big Five of TradPub, diversify outside the digital book space and start shaking hands with airport bookshops and film executives, and in a generation or two there are the new megacorps- the Fat Six, or the Magnificent Seven, et cetera, et cetera.

This state of affairs continues until some upstart indie wordslingers figure out a new model, and the Wild West begins and ends all over again.

Possible. It’s a perpetual David-vs-Goliath story, and we love those stories.

But we happen to think there’s another future.

Firstly, CoPubs are smart. At present CoPubs are small fiefdoms that compete whose chief creative direction seems to stem from one person in the middle – aka one master smith. Dunbar’s number suggests a limit to the number of relationships that can be maintained by one person[18], and there is presumably a size at which a fast corporation becomes a slow, lumbering giant, so this suggests that there is a peak size at which a CoPub operation will halt, if only to preserve its agility.

Secondly, trad pub authors should be factored in terms of the attention economy[19]. The difficulty of forging a full-time career through trad pub alone[20] appears to be forcing midlist authors to contemplate indie.

Traditionally published wordslingers who sell well sometimes set up their own publishing imprint to manage affairs – the Tolkien Estate, J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore or Brandon Sanderson’s DragonSteel Entertainment are two examples. Our sample space is terribly limited, but imagine top authors handling the publication aspect for favored authors and giving them a push by slapping “JK Rowling presents” or “Brandon Sanderson presents” on top. That would mobilize a legion of fans, and said legion many be large enough to sell as many copies as a CoPub. There’s plenty of precedent for this in anthologies.

Thus, we think we’ll end up with a state of affairs where the fastest authors lump themselves into one set of operations, the bestsellers and their proteges/peers lump themselves into a slower set of operations, and everyone competes for attention in the market. All operations are structured feudally around one author or two authors as the master smiths. There may be grander unity and divisions between them all – the CoPub and the trad-turned-NewPub. Periodically an operation collapses, or wordslingers cross from one side to the other – much like the Sengoku Period or the current personality politics of Japan.[21]

Logic suggests that both these types of fiefdoms – will use the Amazon model and work similar to record labels founded by rappers[22] and Led Zeppelin.[23] The CoPubs are likely to have an advantage in terms of speed, which plays a significant role in the algorithms of the Amazon model. The NewPubs will have an advantage in advertising due to sheer brand power. Both will stay relatively small and agile.

The elephants in the room

What of ghostwriters? Ghostwriting is significant business. Growing up, I first became aware of it in K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series – I later learned that the author had a very structured process where they outlined books and had ghostwriters do the work.[24] I later realized the same thing held true for Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, produced by the Stratmeyer Syndicate in the 1930s.[25]

Aragorn, author of the Gondor 2.0, faces his army of ghostwriters

Obviously this exists and might last as long as markets exist. But we have no way of identifying them[26], and so have chosen not to talk about them in the analysis. It’s my guess that they’ll mimic the structure of CoPubs.

What of the TradPub model? We believe mid-sized TradPub will suffer, but the Big Five may be “too big to fail”[27]. The allure of the mainstream publishing contract is a powerful thing. After all, not all authors are profit-driven, and in the model of the attention economy there are other ways we reap satisfaction from our work – prizes, honors, awards and such prestige are social capital and thus will likely always be largely tied to Big Five publishing.

In an optimistic future competition forces them to give their authors a larger share of the royalties and focus more on digital.  

We don’t know if this will happen. Big Five publishers appear to diversifying their operations by investing in smaller presses.[28] The authors still make pennies, but this provides an excellent feeder network where editors with taste and niche knowledge carefully curate massive quantities of books, and something eventually goes viral, at which point the Big Five’s marketing budgets kick in and a new star is born. Moreover, it makes it easier to shut-down non-performing presses. TradPub may be taking lessons from the mammals, but we’ll have to see if benefits trickle down to the authors.

Meanwhile: bring on the fiefdoms. More competition is a good thing. Even if one doesn’t want to set up a franchise, the fact that these avenues now exist is great for all authors.

If there is a counter-narrative to these trends I’ve highlighted, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. The more data we have, the better.

Lastly, if you’ve read this far, and want to support our work, a novellete we’ve co-written has been nominated for the Nebula Awards. We’d like to ask you to read it, and if you think it’s worthy, spread the word. You can read it at https://www.sfwa.org/forum/reading/work/3270-messenger/

 


[1]https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/mar/21/for-me-traditional-publishing-means-poverty-but-self-publish-no-way

[2]https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/sep/15/french-bookshops-revolt-after-prize-selects-novel-self-published-on-amazon

[3] https://www.pw.org/content/notable_moments_in_selfpublishing_history_a_timeline

[4] https://almossawi.com/big-five-publishers/

[5] https://electricliterature.com/how-indie-presses-are-elevating-the-publishing-world-deb06dc11c8a

[6] https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/what-is-meatspace

[7]https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/15/self-published-authors-hollywood-andy-weir-the-martian-el-james

[8]https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/08/buying-houses-in-cash-and-selling-millions-meet-self-publishings-hidden-authors

[9]https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2018/01/slow-death-literary-novel-sales-crisis-afflicting-fiction

[10] Murger, Scènes de la vie de bohème, 1851; Virginia Nicholson, Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900–1939

[11] https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2019-01-14-franchises-are-the-endgame-opinion

[12]https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/10711191/James-Patterson-how-the-bestseller-factory-works.html

[13] http://blog.tavbooks.com/?p=226

[14] https://www.avclub.com/pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain-7-ficti-1798239907

[15] https://lmbpn.com/

[16] https://sterlingandstone.net/about-sterling-and-stone/

[17] http://www.waterhousepress.com/

[18] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number

[19] “…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it” – Herbert Simon, 1971

[20] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/11/traditional-publishing-fair-sustainable-society-of-authors

[21] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2001/08/personality-politics-conquers-japan/377730/

[22] http://www.xxlmag.com/news/2016/08/rappers-record-labels/

[23] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swan_Song_Records

[24] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animorphs#Ghostwriters

[25] https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/05/hardy-boys-nancy-drew-ghostwriters/394022/

[26] To confound the analysis, many people write under pen names in the industry – from Bella Forrest (who nobody seems to know) to James SA Corey of Expanse fame, who are actually Ty Frank and Daniel Abraham.

[27] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Too_big_to_fail

[28] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/21/covers-story-why-are-there-so-many-new-publishing-imprints

By

Read More

Reading Robert Heinlein

I re-read Starship Troopers today. It has been so long since I read it that I had forgotten almost everything but the core themes of the book. Reading it was a reminder of why Heinlein alone among the Big Three – the other two being Clarke and Asimov – remains one of my favorite writers.

In Sri Lanka, where I live, this idea is minor heresy among those who actually read science fiction (a small and harmless minority). We are supposed to revere Clarke: the man lived here, set his novels here, even advised our President. A next choice would be Asimov, who with great daring laid down the intellectual touchstones of robotics in science fiction.

But to me, Robert Heinlein has aged better. Not just because of his pioneering status in science fiction, or his science. Yes, Starship Troopers is credited with practically having started the mecha genre, and those drop-pod sequences are marvelous – but I am a child of Halo: ODST and Neon Genesis Evangelion: I grew up used to these ideas. Heinlein persists because of a far more ephemeral quality: the strange-but-logical humanity that forms the heart of his fiction.

Heinlein’s military theorists lecture on the stupidity of war while glorifying their fallen comrades. His soldiers champion military-run societies that have done away with gender and race discrimination. Look a little further, and his citizens are found adapting themselves to the moon, abandoning that social construct sacred to conservative societies – nuclear family – in favor of communal marriages. He rages against communism, but in the next breath he admires the hive-mind version of it. He glorifies militarism, but in every paragraph he seems to be talking about its monumental and tragic waste.  And when Heinlein sermonizes – which he does often –  each society and Gandalf-character he builds presents their own logic, rigorously bound to their environment, undeniable. Look, he seems to be telling me, this is what you would be, under the same circumstances.  His protagonists, aware of the Logic-that-Binds, struggle with these truths, and emerge like caterpillars, changed by the chrysalis into some altogether new form.

This humanity I cannot help but admire. Clarke’s and Asimov’s characters fail this test: in Asimov’s characters are ciphers driven by the larger plot, and Clarke’s humans act with painful logic with great self-awareness, but without the slightest capacity for change. Doubtless their books were mind-blowing in their time: after all, all of the Big Three were powerful futurists. But as time goes by, technological change sweeps us up, and what may have been profound sixty years ago becomes everyday technology to me. But Heinlein, in all his controversy, survives by channeling the one thing that has not changed: humanity.

 

 

By

Read More

× Close