Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Traditionally the used book store has been a dusty little place of shelves crammed tight with books, generally off the beaten path and quite unlike the new book store with its bright lights and carefully arranged shelves of pristine copies. But with the advent of the online bookstore, the distinction between sellers of new and used books has blurred.'s Marketplace program enables used-book sellers to sell right on the same page as the new books Amazon itself is selling, thus allowing used books to compete directly with new ones.

As a result, there has been increasing concern that the sales of used books are depriving authors of their rightful royalties. After all, if a person can surf onto Amazon's webpage and find the same title that is sold brand new by Amazon itself sold instead for half or a quarter that price by a used-book seller, it would seem obvious that people would be likely to buy the cheaper one. Thus an organization called Novelists, Inc. has begun pressuring lawmakers to require used book sellers to remit royalties on each book sold, or at least books published in the last two years.

Paul Biba of TeleRead has suggested that requiring used-book dealers to pay royalties could have surprising consequences, including making books even less available to the poorest decile of the population, for whom used books and other inexpensive reading options, including libraries, are often the only way to obtain books at all.

In fact, I would suggest that he has not gone far enough in his discussion of the unintended consequences. In fact, it's very likely that the necessary overhead in recordkeeping could actually kill the secondary market for books altogether. Most used-book dealers operate on very narrow margins, often on a mom-and-pop basis. The sellers aren't getting rich, and often are barely scraping by. And that's just sellers who specialize in books. The generalist secondhand store will decide to no longer carry books at all, even those that are well beyond the two-year limit, for the simple reason that ensuring that nothing recent slips in by mistake is too much of a hassle. Thrift stores such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army will also find it impossible to justify such overhead, and will decline to accept book donations, thus hitting the poor twice -- by eliminating a source of very low-cost books and by the loss of the revenue those sales generate that are then applied to various good works.

In a world where royalties must be collected on (recent) used books, only the largest used-book dealerships and a few specialist collectible bookstores would be able to stay in business. Otherwise, the only venues at which used books would be found would be garage sales, which generally fly under the regulatory radar altogether. Most books that are no longer wanted by their owners would most likely go straight to the trash, needlessly burdening landfills and resulting in further resource destruction as trees have to be pulped to produce new copies. Worse, many old and out-of-print books would become even more difficult to find, making it even more likely that their authors become forgotten altogether.

Which means that what is intended to help authors get more money will instead result in many authors losing out altogether.

Correction The actual article is by Chris Meadows -- Paul Biba is the overall site owner, who has various guest writers posting as well.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Can We Move To the Adventure Part?

Recently I've been reading John Ringo and Travis S. Taylor's Claws that Catch, and I've been feeling rather frustrated with it. Already I'm at the hundred-page point and we still haven't gotten into space. To me, it seems like there's way too much "housekeeping" stuff going on and it's getting in the way of moving on to the real story.

I'm also finding that I'm unsettled by one major character's bubbly new wife. Not so much that she's happy to be supporting her husband's career -- there really are some people who are happiest when facilitating someone else's success -- but that it is presented as though it were the only valid model for a married woman. We never see any examples of a dual-career couple or one in which the man supports his wife's career. Thus there seems to be an unspoken message that this is the way women ought to arrange their lives, rather than just what worked for one person.

When I consider some of the other books that John Ringo has written recently, it almost seems as though he thinks that we are soon going to be facing some kind of social upheaval that will lead us to fall back onto the traditional hierarchical family in which the adult male is the most important person and everyone else is expected to defer to him and work to support his success, even to the despite of themselves. To be true, there is a rationale behind this sort of arrangement -- the adult male body generates higher levels of testosterone, which translates into greater upper body strength. And frequently in belt-buckle-to-backbone situations that additional muscular strength can translate into an important survival edge for the entire group, which means that it is important to keep it at its peak.

However, it can be rough on the people inside those bodies, for the simple fact that we are individuals, not widgets stamped out in a factory all alike. As roles become increasingly rigid and prescriptive, people who do not fit neatly into them come under increasing pressure, often disproportionate to the actual need to have everyone fitting tightly into their assigned roles. The role becomes an end unto itself, rather than a means to the end.

In the long run, emergency arrangements have a nasty habit of surviving the emergency. For instance, long after the Great Depression was over, my grandmother continued to carefully save and reuse little squares of aluminum foil. The habit had become ingrained in those tight years, and even after she had adequate money, she continued to do so.

When we go from the scale of individual habits to that of social expectations, things can get even worse. Making a virtue of necessity often ends up with the virtue surviving long after the necessity has gone away. This is especially true if it should become enshrined in tradition and given moral force. For instance, the feudal privileges granted the nobility in Europe made sense in the chaotic century or two immediately after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire made sense, because it freed up their time and energy to protect the people who needed to spend all their time and energy producing the food that would keep everybody alive. But by the time society changed such that those arrangements were no longer necessary, they had become so customary that questioning them was met with intense hostility. To suggest that the nobility should pay taxes upon their wealth was seen as an affront, a diminishment of the dignity of their elevated standing in society. Thus many of these privileges survived well into the modern era, to the point that they were actually a drain upon society instead of helping to support it.

And quite honestly, there is in John Ringo's portrayals of gender relation a certain hint of the nobleman annoyed at those "uppity" commoners questioning traditional feudal privileges and duties.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Book Reviewer Link-Up Meme

From Grasping for the Wind, a list of active sf/fantasy book reviewers. If you don't see your blog, follow the link to get yours added.

7 Foot Shelves
The Accidental Bard
A Boy Goes on a Journey
A Dribble Of Ink
A Hoyden's Look at Literature
Adventures in Reading
The Agony Column
Andromeda Spaceways
The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.
Ask Daphne
Australia Specfic in Focus
Author 2 Author
Barbara Martin
Bees (and Books) on the Knob
Bibliophile Stalker
The Billion Light-year Bookshelf
Bitten by Books
The Black Library Blog
Blog, Jvstin Style
Blood of the Muse
The Book Bind
The Book Smugglers
The Book Swede
Breeni Books
Cheaper Ironies [pro columnist]
Cheryl's Musings
Critical Mass
The Crotchety Old Fan
Damien G. Walter
Danger Gal
Dark Wolf Fantasy Reviews
Darque Reviews
Dave Brendon's Fantasy and Sci-Fi Weblog
Dear Author
The Deckled Edge
Dragons, Heroes and Wizards
The Discriminating Fangirl
Dusk Before the Dawn
Enter the Octopus
Eve's Alexandria
Fantastic Reviews
Fantastic Reviews Blog
Fantasy Book Critic
Fantasy Cafe
Fantasy Debut
Fantasy Book Reviews and News
Fantasy and Sci-fi Lovin' Blog
Feminist SF - The Blog!
The Fix
The Foghorn Review
Frances Writes
From a Sci-Fi Standpoint
Fruitless Recursion
The Galaxy Express
The Gamer Rat
Genre Reviews
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Grasping for the Wind
The Green Man Review
Highlander's Book Reviews
The Hub Magazine
Hyperpat's Hyper Day
Ink and Keys
Jumpdrives and Cantrips
Lair of the Undead Rat
League of Reluctant Adults
Literary Escapism
Michele Lee's Book Love
The Mistress of Ancient Revelry
MIT Science Fiction Society
Monster Librarian
More Words, Deeper Hole
Mostly Harmless Books
My Favourite Books
Neth Space
The New Book Review
OF Blog of the Fallen
The Old Bat's Belfry
Outside of a Dog
Pat's Fantasy Hotlist
Piaw's Blog
Post-Weird Thoughts
Publisher's Weekly
Reading the Leaves
Realms of Speculative Fiction
Reviewer X
The Road Not Taken
Rob's Blog o' Stuff
Robots and Vamps
Sandstorm Reviews
Sci Fi Wire
Sci-Fi Fan Letter
Sci-Fi Songs [Musical Reviews]
The Sequential Rat
Severian's Fantastic Worlds
SF Diplomat
SF Gospel
SF Revu
SF Signal
SF Site
SFF World's Book Reviews
Silver Reviews
The Specusphere
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
Speculative Fiction
Speculative Fiction Junkie
Speculative Horizons
Spiral Galaxy Reviews
Spontaneous Derivation
Sporadic Book Reviews
Stella Matutina
The Sudden Curve
The Sword Review
Tangent Online
Tehani Wessely
Temple Library Reviews [also a publisher]
True Science Fiction
Urban Fantasy Land
Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic
Variety SF
Walker of Worlds
Wands and Worlds
The Wertzone
With Intent to Commit Horror
WJ Fantasy Reviews
The World in a Satin Bag
Young Adult Science Fiction

Foreign Language (other than English)

Cititor SF [Romanian, but with English Translation] [French]

Foundation of Krantas [Chinese (traditional)]

The SF Commonwealth Office in Taiwan [Chinese (traditional) with some English essays]

Yenchin's Lair [Chinese (traditional)]

Fernando Trevisan [Brazilian, Portuguese]

Human 2.0 [Brazilian, Portuguese]

Life and Times of a Talkative Bookworm [Brazilian, Porteguese]

Ponto De Convergencia [Brazilian, Portuguese]

pós-estranho [Brazilian, Portuguese]

Fantasy Seiten [German, Deustche]

Fantasy Buch [German, Deustche]

Literaturschock [German, Deustche]

Welt der fantasy [German, Deustche]

Bibliotheka Phantastika [German, Deustche]

SF Basar [German, Deustche]

Phantastick News [German, Deustche]

X-zine [German, Deustche]

Buchwum [German, Deustche]

Phantastick Couch [German, Deustche]

Wetterspitze [German, Deustche]

Fantasy News [German, Deustche]

Fantasy Faszination [German, Deustche]

Fantasy Guide [German, Deustche]

Zwergen Reich [German, Deustche]

Fiction Fantasy [German, Deustche]

Saturday, December 13, 2008

First Contact as You've Never Seen It

Michael Z. Williamson has announced that he will begin regular snippeting of his new novel Contact with Chaos on his topic at Baen's Bar, Mike's Madhouse.

I've seen a few early-draft snippets of Contact with Chaos, and it looks to be setting several cherished tropes of the first-contact story on their ears. Not to mention that he's showing a dark side of the Freehold of Grainne, to which he introduced readers in his debut novel, Freehold. Since it's clear in his earlier works that he deeply admires the ideals of the society he has portrayed (minimal government, self-reliance and the development of community on the personal level rather than as a top-down mandate, etc), it takes a considerable amount of artistic courage to show it as having flawed people who can use its strengths in flawed ways, and let the consequences of those flaws play out in a logical manner.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Part that Is Original Is Not Good, and the Part that is Good Is Not Original

As I have been reading The Alton Gift by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross, I have been growing increasingly disappointed with it. This has been frustrating because I really do want to enjoy it. Darkover has long been one of my favorite series, ever since I found a battered copy of Stormqueen! at my tiny hometown library when I was a teen and was immediately sucked into the chilly world that seemed like a feudal society but possessed these odd telepathic powers that made them seem futuristic. Over the next several years I hunted down and devoured every one of the books.

As I read The Alton Gift, I keep having my mind jarred by things that feel out of place. Several times I have come across terms that were used in ways that didn't quite feel right, which made me want to hunt up all the old Darkover books and re-read them to see whether my memory was failing me after so many years. And then there were scenes that didn't feel like Darkover at all, but more like some other fantasy world interpolated into Darkover.

Now that I am not quite halfway through the novel, I'm realizing that there's a consistent pattern to my dislikes: the sections that ought to feel the most like classic Darkover instead feel like the old books were chopped up and bits pasted in rather badly without any real understanding of what they were about, while the sections in which it appears that Ms. Ross was attempting to take Darkover in new directions do not feel like they even belong on Darkover at all.

I've noticed this happening in the most recent books of several long-running series. For instance, I have the latest two Pern books on my shelf right now, but my attempts to read them have repeatedly ground to a halt because I simply cannot seem to get into them. And I loved the original six Pern books, and even some of the subsequent ones. But somewhere after All the Weyrs of Pern some of the old spark of Pern seemed to gutter out, and the subsequent books felt more like efforts to squeeze additional money out of an old idea than anything new and fresh. Although Anne McCaffrey's son Todd seems to have tried to take the storyline in a new direction with his three books, they are rapidly feeling less and less like the real Pern.

And of course one of the most notorious in my mind is the endless series of prequels and sequels to Dune that Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have been churning out of late. Even under Frank Herbert's own hand the later books in the series had shown a decline compared to the vivid worldbuilding of the original. When I read the prequel series, it felt like fanfic that happened to be authorized by the estate. Now I like fanfic, especially the sort that knows that it's fanfic and revels in the sense of playing cheerfully in someone else's universe. However, the very pompous "this is the real stuff" message that was larded all over the Dune prequel series really turned me off.

Even when the original creator is still alive and active in the creation, it's not proof against the problem: I still remember watching the first Star Wars prequel and recognizing one scene after another as rehashes of successful scenes from the original trilogy. By the time I was done watching it, I was glad I waited to see it on video and hadn't wasted my money going to a first-run theater. And George Lucas, the guiding genius of the original Star Wars trilogy, is not only alive and well, but still the one creating the prequel trilogy.

However, length of run is no automatic prompter of decline. Some authors seem to be able to maintain the creative spark through a large number of volumes. For instance, David Weber has written over a dozen books in his Honor Harrington series, yet each new one simultaneously takes the story in new directions and continues to feel like the authentic Honorverse. His collaborations with Eric Flint, exploring the war against the genetic slavers of Mesa who were originally almost a toss-off bit of background color, are every bit as compelling as the mainline Honor series, and don't feel like something awkwardly grafted onto the Honorverse.

Yet once the slide into trouble begins for a series, there seems to be no recovering. Which raises the question of whether there really does come a time when it's best to allow a series to die a natural death -- and whether a publisher will allow it to do so as long as the books, however bad, continue to generate money from fans who just keep hoping that maybe this one will be like the ones they remembered from the days when the series was still alive and vibrant.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

New Websites and Blogs

Elizabeth Moon has announced in her newsgroup that she has two new websites with associated blogs.

The first is dedicated to her near future novel The Speed of Dark, which deals with a revolutionary new treatment for autism and the prices of becoming "normal."

The second is dedicated to her Paksenarrion universe, which has a new series coming out shortly. The original Paksenarrion trilogy, beginning with Sheepfarmer's Daughter (The Deed of Paksenarrion, Book 1), launched Elizabeth Moon's writing career, so it's good to see her returning to that world.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Norilana Books in Peril!

Norilana Books, the small specialty press which has published such gems as Sherwood Smith's Senrid and A Stranger To Command, is in serious danger.

It is a one-woman production, owned and operated by Vera Nazarian, an immigrant who came here from the old Soviet Union in the depths of the Cold War. After years of struggling to support her aging parents on multiple low-paying jobs and struggling with a crushing debt load (the result of having been defrauded when she was young and inexperienced, and believing that it was her fault because she was, in her own words, "just a dumb immigrant"), her health finally became so poor she could no longer go to an office each day. Determined not to become a public charge, she founded Norilana Books so she could work from home, which also enabled her to give round-the-clock care to her parents as their health deteriorated.

However, businesses take a certain amount of lead time to become profitable, and in that time Vera's personal financial situation worsened dramatically. Her father passed away after a lengthy (and expensive) illness, and her mother went through another illness which required her total attention for several months she desperately needed to build her business. Then she had several major and expensive problems with her house, some of which have not been completely resolved and pose continuing risk to the health of her and her mother.

Now her situation has become critical, and she is in danger of losing her house if she cannot come up with over ten thousand dollars to pay her mortgage, since her forbearance has ended prematurely. Although Norilana Books itself is in sufficiently sound condition that it can continue operations, how can Vera continue to produce books if she and her mother have been tossed out on the street?

A number of her friends have set up a site, Help Vera, on which they are taking donations and auctioning various collectible items in order to raise enough money that Vera will be able to have some leverage in negotiating with her mortgage holder. Every dollar we can raise will make it more likely that they will actually be willing to work with her rather than simply grabbing the house and tossing her out on her ear to fend for herself.

Update: The fundraiser has succeeded far beyond our hopes. We already have enough money to pay the arrearage on Vera's mortgage, and there are still donations and auction payments in the pipeline. The additional money will be used to help Vera get a lawyer to get her mortgage rewritten to standard terms (as opposed to the onerous sub-prime mortgage she currently has), to get her sewer line fixed before it becomes a catastrophe, to deal with medical expenses for her and her mother, and start building a cushion against future misfortunes.

This upwelling of grassroots support really restores my faith in humanity. It's so good to know that people can pull together to help someone who's fallen upon hard times.

Now the best thing we can do to help her maintain long-term solvency is to buy some of her books, and encourage others to do so as well. So go to Norilana Books, take a look through the catalog, and see if there's something that you'd like to get, either for yourself or as a gift for a friend. And pass the word: link it from your Website, blog about it, bookmark it in social bookmarking websites like Digg!, StumbleUpon, Furl, etc. Every link we create will help raise the prominence of her Website and her company, and thus its profitability.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Sartorias-deles News

Sherwood Smith has reported on the Athanarel community on LiveJournal that she has finished CJ's second notebook. It looks like Norilana Books will be putting it out as another Christmas surprise, much as Over the Sea: CJ's First Notebook came out at the Christmas season last year.

And if that isn't enough to sate your hunger for Sartorias-deles, Samhain Books is finally going to be putting out The Trouble with Kings in hardcopy. It's a paperback rather than a hardcover, but if you've wanted something more substantial than the e-book, now's the time to pick it up.