Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Book Publishing in the 21st Century

Let me get this out of the way first before I go on: I am not saying that traditional book publishing is dying. You heard me right, your ability to go to the store of your choice, pick our a paperback or hardback book, take it home and read it will probably not go away... at least not entirely.

Two days ago an interesting thing happened. As described here, on Christmas day more books electronic books were sold through for the Kindle than traditional paperback books. Even before this happened, Amazon's sales of E-books were about on-par with traditional books. In fact, has said that their top selling item in the entire company is the Kindle. I don't think that it is possible to deny that people are switching to electronic reading.

This begs some larger questions though. What of traditional book publishers, like Random House, ACE, TOR, Del Rey, and others? How will they be able to survive in the new marketplace? I'm sure that some people are already rolling their eyes and thinking that this is another article about how new technology is supposedly going to revolutionize life as we know it, change paradigms, and otherwise open up access for the entire world (Cue the old Coke commercial from the '70s and '80s where they just want to buy the world a Coke...). I'll repeat, I don't think paper books are going to go away, and I think that traditional book publishers are going to survive in one form or another for as long as there is demand.

On the other hand, I am talking about technology and electronic readers are presently changing the way that people read books. In a recent interview Amazon's CEO, Jeff Bezos, said three things that I find interesting. First, he said that he was surprised by the success of the Kindle. Second, he said that that he believes that we will see the end to paper publishing, in favor of electronic publishing, at some point in the future. Third, he said that he doesn't read novels in paper form anymore if he can help it. These are bold statements from a man who was one of the first to pioneer E-business. Today, language, text, and technology are all inter-related in new and exciting ways. We haven't seen an innovation to the traditional book of this magnitude since the invention of the printing press. Note that I'm not talking about E-readers specifically, but rather the internet and the wide variety of tech-options for reading information, whether it be short form, like online article or long form, like novels. Paradigms really are shifting right in front of us, and many of the people like me, born in the '70s and before, are either struggling to keep up, or see the modern age as the fulfillment of the promise that was made by science fiction authors.

As we all know, the current model of publishing is where the author creates a brilliant work and then sells it to a publishing house. This often involves an agent, who performs the vital service of selling the author's work to the publisher. The publisher then provides the services of editing the work, providing cover art, marketing, and printing. All three of those items are expensive. Just getting one paperback title onto store shelves costs thousands of dollars. While it's not impossible for an individual to do this themselves, it is not easy.

Whether the traditional publishing houses like it or not, E-publishing changes everything, beginning with printing. Usually, the most expensive part of publishing a book to paper is printing. Thanks to E-readers, you don't need paper anymore. One quarter of the services provided by a traditional publisher has just been eliminated. Now, at this point, the mercenary in many writers thinks, "Hey, I can do this myself now!" In fact, yes, the writer is now free to forego the traditional publishing house and do it all themself. It's called self publishing, and it has actually been around slightly longer than the E-reader due to a number of high quality print on demand outfits. If you recall, however, there are four things that a publisher does for an author, not just one. The other three are still important.

So let me ask you, dear reader, why do you not go to the storefront, peruse the various self-published books, and buy them just as often as the ones from major publishers? Generally, there are three complaints about self-published books: lack of editing, lack of quality cover art, and frankly, you don't exactly know what to buy.

So we're back to traditional publishing, just in a new medium. Right?

Not exactly. I'll preface my remarks by saying that a lot of what I'm about to say is based on information I've received from writers in the field. I personally, am an RPG writer who has not yet published my first novel (more on this later). First of all, traditional book stores are hurting. The ability to buy online as well as the fact that you can only buy books for electronic devices online means that a lot of people are saving themselves the trip to the store. Book publishing companies are also tightening their belts and requiring that a lot of authors do a lot of their own promotion. So that means that the things that traditional book publishers are really doing in the digital age is offer a paper option for customers, offer quality cover art, and offer editing. They are quite good at these things.

Note, however, that these publishers are now trying to claim perpetual E-publishing rights for the books they publish even while established authors are deciding to go it alone and publish their works themselves. After all, if you're an established writer with an established fan base that recommends your books to friends, then you simply don't need publishers to get your work out there. Put them out there yourself and make more money!

So what happens if you aren't an established author? You should be able to get cover art for your book for a few hundred dollars if you know where to look. But even if you have the expertise to edit your own work (which is actually usually a really bad idea), you still need to find some way to promote your books. While traditional publishers are asking authors to do a lot of self promotion, they still list their books with stores, which gets them on the shelf in your local store, which in-turn results in a certain number of sales. No, that doesn't mean that this will land you on the New York Times bestseller list, but it does mean that if they publish your book, you can probably count on a certain amount of money from the deal. The amount of money depends greatly upon things like the popularity of the genre you are writing for, the quality of the cover art they give you, as well as the terms of the contract you sign.

So book publishing in the 21st century looks a lot like book publishing in the 20th century, except with more gadgets? Essentially, that is what I'm arguing. Until you can afford to market your book, you still need the traditional publisher.

But there is another possibility that we might start to see more of: the publishing company that dispenses with the paper and the local book store, and sells directly to people over the internet. After all, with all these Kindles out there that just require data to give you a book, you don't need to invest in print runs. Also, by utilizing services like and Amazon's Booksurge, you can still get your books into print for those customers who still have to have paper. This company would still be responsible for editing, promoting the author's work, and they would be responsible for providing the book with good cover art.

So what's the advantage to this model? Put simply, accessibility. The bar for entry into this field is lowered significantly. In fact, the bar for entry into this market is lower than it is with roleplaying games, the field I'm in, because you don't have to bother with interior art, nor do you have to worry about game mechanics when you're editing. All you have to do is put together a good book and find an audience. This is something that small RPG companies have been doing for years by doing the work they can do themselves, bringing in freelancers to do what they can't, and then finding their audience online.

My argument is that if small RPG companies can do it, so can small electronic novel publishing companies. This also means that aspiring writers will probably start finding it easier to get their first book published, but the flip side of this is that there probably won't be as much money in it, unless you go through the large traditional publishing houses, at least not until that publishing house has built up a reputation for quality, or the author has managed to find an audience.

So in summary, book publishing in the 21st century will see the traditional book publishing Goliaths shrink but not disappear. We will see a rise in small presses that publish directly to electronic formats. We will see more people who are making some money from their writing, but we will probably see fewer authors who will be able to do it full time as their primary means of support.

And this is both good news and bad news to aspiring authors.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Why the Ancient Greeks and Fantasy Were Made For Each Other

The general assumption behind almost the entirety of the fantasy genre is that it is set in a pseudo-medieval period. Maybe this is so that the characters can wear pants, or maybe this is because it's how Tolkien did it, but I really started to question whether it was the right way to go some time ago. While I still enjoy fantasy books and gaming, I feel that the way to make it more interesting is to go Greek. (hint: thesis statement here-->) The reasons I think the Greek civilization is a better model for the fantasy genre is because it was polytheistic, it consisted mainly of independent city states, and because the monsters of its mythology are so commonly associated with the fantasy genre.

Starting with polytheism versus monotheism, many people are willing to ignore this in favor of capturing the overall feel of medieval Europe, but it really is kind of a big deal. In the middle ages, the Christian church dominated everything. For a thousand years, they were the dominant power. It really wasn't until Charlemagne came along that a secular leader managed to recapture real power from the church, and it definitely wasn't until the black death that people realized that the church didn't have all the answers. It wasn't until the crusades, the cultural exchange between the Muslims and the Christians, and the rediscovery of Aristotle that people in Europe realized that they could apply reason rather than faith as the primary means of making decisions. This is huge. It was so huge that the Thomas Aquinas spent a great deal of time and effort trying to merge the reason of Aristotle in with the dogma of religion.

Most fantasy genres, on the other hand, are very polytheistic. Having a multitude of gods that are constantly struggling against one another just makes for more interesting stories. It's more fun creating stories that involve mortals landing in the middle of struggles that are so much larger than they are. Polytheism gives characters an ultimate frontier to strive towards, and it also provides them with a reason to quest on behalf of their deities. In Star Trek V, Kirk asks "God" what he needs with a starship. It's a valid question in a universe where gods are all-powerful, all seeing, and all knowing. In a fantasy universe, the gods are a bit more limited in their abilities, and a Greek god would have a pat answer for Kirk: "Because Zeus got pissed, dumped me off here, and your starship is the only way to leave this dead planet!"

Religious matters aside, fantasy also usually assumes a degree of political intrigue. I'm not going to attempt to make the argument that the middle ages lacked politics - far from it - but I am going to say that a setting where city states were independent and controlled a great deal less territory makes for a more interesting story or game because the politics can change drastically as the heroes travel from one locale to the next. In a kingdom that spans hundreds of miles, if you make an enemy of the wrong person in one town, you will be wanted for most of the other towns within reach. In ancient Greece, if you piss off a king of one city, you make haste out of town, or hop a ship, and when you arrive at the next city, odds are that you get to start clean (or at least with whatever baggage you have from the last time you visited). It's easier to build an episodic story while maintaining the same basic culture throughout.

If you know your history, you could point out that Greece wasn't entirely without large government. There was the Delian League and the Peloponnesian League, which were comprised of a number of city states and were aligned against one another. This is true, and it's also true that Crete was a dominating city state during the bonze age. Despite this, the political influence of Athens, Sparta, and Crete was not as all-encompassing as it would be in a kingdom. The political institutions were completely unstable, which is why looking up the Delian League in Wikipedia turns up a huge list of city states that belonged to it at one point or another, but either dropped out on their own or were conquered by someone larger, forcing them out of the league. Many of the cities of Ionia, for instance, in Modern day Turkey, were part of the league until the Persian Empire came in and conquered them. Persia, in itself, makes for an excellent "evil empire" for characters to struggle against.

Finally, a good percentage of the monsters that form the backbone of fantasy fiction and gaming are either directly taken from Greek mythology, or they are based on these creatures. Off the top of my head, Greek mythology directly contributed the following monsters to D&D: minotaurs, cyclops, lamia, medusa, hydra, dragons, gorgons, centaurs, giants, hags, harpies, demons, ghosts, and more. Or, to put it another way, a good number of the monsters that characters run into in fantasy literature are directly derived from Greek mythology.

Finally, Greek mythology is more loaded with traditional fantasy heroes than medieval literature is. Sure, medieval literature has Beowulf, King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and Robin Hood, but the Greeks give us Haracles, Perseus, Theseus, Jason, Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus, etc. etc. etc. There's simply more there. And keeps... there were castles in Greece, just like there were castles in the Middle Ages. In fact, King Minos's castle in Greece was both a castle as well as a dungeon.

Now maybe you'll argue that it wasn't until the middle ages that plate armor was invented, that metal craft wasn't perfected until then, or that there are a few more monsters that were picked up through the vikings, or the Americans, or the Arabs, but realistically, the cultural influences from those sources is not felt as greatly as the Greek culture is in most fantasy literature (granted, there are exceptions, but I'm making a general statement here). In fact, in terms of cultural influences, I would further argue that no culture in the history of the world was more influential on our own culture than ancient Greece. It is for all of these reasons that I believe that ancient Greece itself is a long-overlooked source of fantasy fiction. Unsurprisingly, this is an avenue that I am currently exploring, and you'll see the fruits of my experimentation in the coming months.

Monday, December 14, 2009

So another year is almost over and this is the part where we reflect on where things are at as well as where things are headed.

First of all, the big news from me this year at year end is that I have finished all coursework for my undergraduate degree. This is a pretty big deal for me, considering that I opted not to finish at the university my first time through, and I actually did pretty well for myself in the workforce for about a decade after making that decision. That said, I did hit a bit of a glass ceiling due to the lack of a degree, so I finished up only to find that I really enjoy school. In fact, I enjoy it so much that I'm applying for grad school. So much for the glass ceiling, if this happens, it will be a complete change of direction into something that will allow me to do more meaningful work.

The next big news for me is that the grim reaper almost paid me a visit. I'm sure everyone reading this has heard of the swine flu, or the H1N1 virus. Yeah, I had that and it led to pneumonia. The problem was that I didn't know that I had pneumonia and the two times I went into the clinic, they gave me some weak antibiotics and sent me on my way. After this had gone on for a couple weeks and I was still feeling like crap, I went to the emergency room and found out that I had a pretty severe case of pneumonia. My second night there didn't go so well, as my blood O2 levels crashed. Luckily I was in a hospital and they were prepared for that, but had I continued to stay home, it could have been bad. All told, I spent a week in the hospital, another week at home after that recovering, and then there were the two weeks before that, so I missed a grand total of a month worth of school. Most people were suggesting that I take a medical withdrawal and then try again next semester, but I really didn't want to postpone graduation and there were classes I was taking that wouldn't be offered next semester, so I picked myself up by my bootstraps and got myself back to class. The fact that I succeeded says as much about how cool my professors are as it does about my drive to catcht up. It wasn't the easiest thing in the world, and some of my other projects suffered as a result.

Speaking of other projects, I'm currently in the middle of writing the eighth Oathbound book, which will be called Eclipse. What's cool about this project is that Oathbound is really one of those key projects I was involved with very early in my RPG design career, and I really didn't expect that I would get the chance to return to it. When Bastion Press went down, the Oathbound property went to one of its original creators, Greg Dent, and given the state of the RPG industry at that time, it didn't look like it was worth continuing. Things are looking up in the industry this year, however, and he decided to move forward with it again, and with as many of the original crew as possible. As it turns out, the returning crew includes all of three of us: Todd Morasche, myself, and of course Greg Dent, plus we've brought on a newcomer to the field, Clinton J. Boomer, who is a fellow Werecabbage and a hell of a great writer/designer. I should be finished with my part of this project fairly soon, which means that I'll be on to the next thing....

So, on to the next thing! You know those nifty devices that have been coming out for the last few years? Amazon makes one called the Kindle, Sony makes one simply called an E-reader, and there are a few more out there? It struck me that the existence of these devices really blows the doors open for those of us who know we can write novels well, have a desire to do so, but can't seem to get out of the slush pile. Incidentally, it's a fairly common occurrence for RPG authors to have difficulties breaking into novels. In my case, there have been a few near misses, such as the Babylon 5 novel I was to write for Mongoose Publishing, right before their license fell through.... So, tired of near successes, I've decided to take things into my own hands, in typical Darrin Drader fashion, and start up a novel publishing company.

I know what you're thinking: how is this any different than any other self publishing scheme? The answer is that I'm not just going to be publishing myself, but I'll also be publishing other writers. If someone comes to me with an outstanding manuscript, I'll publish their book, but what I'm specifically looking for are game designers and even game studios who want their novels to see the light of day and their game world translated into fiction. I'll be doing the copyediting and layout, providing covers and advertising, and I'll also be making these novels available in multiple formats, so you'll be able to buy them and read them on whatever gadget you prefer, including the PC. Plus, if you're the type who just has to have a dead tree format book, I'll make our books available through one of the print on demand outfits as well.

Right now I'd love to give specifics about what this new venture is going to entail, but I can't do that just yet. What I can say is that I will in fact be publishing a novel of my own, which I'll start writing as soon as I'm done writing this Oathbound book. I can also say that there will be two new shared world settings that I'll be handling, which other authors can get in on. I've picked out a name for the company, which I can't share just yet due to the fact that it remains unregistered as a business, although the web domain has been reserved. I'll make an announcement when we start accepting submissions as soon as things come together.

One little tidbit I can share about my own personal novel project is that it's in one of the shared worlds I mentioned and it takes on traditional fantasy, but frames it differently than I've seen done before and I'm pretty excited about the creative direction it's taking.

So that's it for now. I'll try to blog more often now that I'm finished with school... for now anyway.