Friday, July 31, 2009

At Home with Jack Vance

Jack Vance at 92At 92 years of age (soon to be 93, on August 28), author Jack Vance is finally garnering some long-overdue, well-deserved attention in the media. And considering that he hasn't published any new fiction since 2004 (novel Lurulu, sequel to Ports of Call, 1998; both from Tor Books), this is indeed a remarkable accomplishment. Why all the media attention now? Because Vance has two books that have just been published by Subterranean Press. First and foremost is Vance's autobiography, This Is Me, Jack Vance! (more on this in a bit). The second title is anthology Songs of the Dying Earth, which is subtitled "Stories in Honor of Jack Vance." Songs features some of the best writers in the genre: Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin (who co-edited the anthology), Lucius Shepard, and Dan Simmons, to name only four, with an appreciation by Dean Koontz. What makes this book even more special is that Vance himself has written a new preface to open the anthology.

Carlo Rotella, director of American Studies at Boston College, wrote an excellent and lengthy piece (nearly 3,700 words) on Jack Vance entitled
"The Genre Artist" in the July 15 New York Times. Rotella's introduction to Vance's fiction occurred when he was 14 years old, and he's been reading the author's work ever since. In this article Rotella quotes from a number of Vance novels, quotes from contributors (Tanith Lee and Dan Simmons) to the Songs anthology, and even quotes from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon: "Jack Vance is the most painful case of all the writers I love who I feel don't get the credit they deserve. If 'The Last Castle' or 'The Dragon Masters' had the name Italo Calvino on it, or just a foreign name, it would be received as a profound meditation, but because he's Jack Vance and published in Amazing Whatever, there's this insurmountable barrier." Well said, Mr. Chabon! I'm awaiting my copy of This Is Me, Jack Vance! from Subterranean Press, but in the meantime I have Rotella's article to tide me over. By the way, Rotella notes that "Vance takes pride in his craft but does not care to talk about it in any detail, going so far in his memoir as to consign almost all discussion of writing to a brief chapter at the end." If you're not familiar with Jack Vance, this article is a great mini-introduction to Vance's work, and his life. Kudos to Carlo Rotella.

I personally lay all the blame for my rampant book collecting on Jack Vance... Well, that's not really fair: his mass market paperback publishers Berkley Medallion and DAW Books actually share that dubious honor. I was already an avid book reader, but it was Jack Vance's Demon Princes series that drove me to my bibliophilic behavior. I don't recall how the Demon Princes series was brought to my attention, but in the early '80s I made a concerted effort to track down these five books. Now, you have to remember that at that point in time, there was no internet; there was no "online" in which to do an online book search. In those days we actually had to visit bookstores; and we used the telephone and, dare I say it, book catalogs sent through the mail to acquire specific titles. My favorite bookstore was Books, Inc. in the Town & Country shopping center near the corner of Stevens Creek and Winchester boulevards in San Jose. Books, Inc. closed down not too long after the Barnes and Noble superstore opened about a block away; and now the entire Town & Country shopping center is gone, replaced by the upscale Santana Row. But back to Books, Inc.: The store was a panacea for SF readers in particular because the management never returned a book. Regardless of the number of copies they ordered of any particular paperback, those copies would remain on the shelves until they sold. You could find paperbacks on the shelves that were years old, the pages often yellowed from age. So that's where I went to purchase the five volumes in Vance's Demon Princes series. The first three books in the series -- Star King, The Killing Machine, and The Palace of Love -- were published in the '60s by Berkley Medallion; the final two books in the series -- The Face and The Book of Dreams -- were published by DAW Books in 1979 and 1981 respectively. Unfortunately, I only found one of the DAW books on the shelf. A clerk assisted me by looking up the other four titles in Books in Print (available as a set of humongous hardcovers as well as on microfiche). It turned out that two of the five titles were out of print -- one from Berkley Medallion and the first book from DAW. And, not understanding the stupidity of publishers at the time, I couldn't comprehend why any publisher would allow the middle books of a five-book series to go out of print. It just didn't make any sense to me -- then. But in the course of looking through Books in Print, the clerk discovered that the series had been published in a hardcover edition by an independent press called Underwood-Miller. Great, I said, let's order them. Sorry, said the clerk, we don't deal directly with that publisher, and those titles aren't available through our regular distributor. Sigh... Time to go home and make some telephone calls to other bookstores in the area.

This is how I discovered genre bookstore Future Fantasy in Palo Alto, about a 25-mile drive from where I live. I telephoned the store, and yes, they could order the books for me, but I would have to pay for them in advance. So I made the drive to Palo Alto, only to discover that the store proprietor would only order one volume at a time -- even though I was willing to pay for the five books all at once, up front. Not sure of her rationale; but keep in mind that this was the early '80s and each of these trade hardcovers cost, I believe it was, $20.00 each -- so the set of five books was $100.00 (plus tax). Anyhow, I paid for the first book in advance, returned to the store a couple weeks later when the book arrived and paid in advance for the next one in the series, and so on until I owned all five books. Of course, I was now hooked on hardcovers and limited editions, having been in Future Fantasy -- browsing and buying -- six times over the span of about three months: the road to ruin, you might say. Future Fantasy moved a few years later to a larger store, but then the local competition and the internet finally took its toll and the store closed as well.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

12 Stories Do Not a Collection Make

The big announcement last month concerned my friend Alastair Reynolds, author of the superb space opera novels Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap, among others -- all part of his Inhibitors-Conjoiners (aka Revelation Space) universe. According to the announcement and mini-interview in the Guardian, Reynolds has signed an unprecedented contract with publisher Gollancz in the United Kingdom: the contract calls for ten books over a span of ten years for 1-million pounds sterling [that's $1,620,660.00 as of this writing]. Congratulations, Al!

Al and I have worked on a couple of projects together over the past few years: a limited edition chapbook novella (Turquoise Days, Golden Gryphon Press, 2002) and a short story collection (Zima Blue and Other Stories, Night Shade Books, 2006). [I'd love to link to additional information on Zima Blue but all NSB editions are out of print.] And hopefully there will be another project in the foreseeable future. If all the authors with whom I've worked, or will work, had the professionalism, moral integrity, care and respect for others that Al Reynolds displayed during these two projects, I would be in editorial hog heaven.

With this new multi-book deal, Al no longer has to worry about sample chapters and outlines and pitches for his next book contracts (at least for the next nine years), he can now devote that time to the craft of writing. And we, his readers, will continue to delight in the fruits of his labors. If you're not familiar with Alastair Reynolds's short fiction, check out his story "Spirey and the Queen" available online (included in Zima Blue); and if you're into audio, Al reads his new story "Scales," his first military SF story, as part of the original Guardian Books Podcast series.

So, you wonder, why am I spending so much time chatting about Alastair Reynolds? Because I'm going to use his collection, Zima Blue and Other Stories -- and specifically how this collection came together -- as my example in this essay on short story collections.

In recent years I have noticed a trend among "young" authors -- particularly those published by small presses, and to be even more specific, the print-on-demand (POD) small presses -- to publish a new short story collection as soon as they've accumulated (and that's the correct word I wish to use) a dozen or so stories. If the writer is sufficiently prodigious, that could easily work out to a collection (or two) a year. As a point of clarification, I use the term "young" loosely here. Author William Gibson was thirty-six years old when his first novel Neuromancer was published in 1984; Lucius Shepard was thirty-eight and Jay Lake was forty when each won the Campbell Award for best new writer. In response to an age question on his blog, John Scalzi has written an excellent
essay on why new, young writers are typically in their 30s when they finally get published; he even lays out his own writing career as an example.

I realize authors need income, and if they are primarily a short story writer, then a collection of said stories is one of the few (if only) income-generating options open to them once the stories themselves have been initially published. I understand the need, and the rationale, but...

In my tenure as an editor, I have worked on twenty short story collections; not a large number in the overall scheme of things, but not too shabby either for the small press business. I am referring to the full package here: working with the author to develop the collection, selecting the stories, determining story order, editing and copyediting the stories, and whatever else was needed to create the book. Authors included Kage Baker, Michael Bishop, Jeffrey Ford, M. Rickert, Lucius Shepard, Jeff VanderMeer, and, of course, George Alec Effinger, plus a handful of others. And though I'm far from being an expert on story collections (every author and every book always has something new to teach me), I have had a wee bit of experience.

Often, an author and/or the author's agent would send me a manuscript consisting of a predetermined set of stories and word count. In every instance I worked with the author to change the contents list and increase the word count. This was necessary because the author and/or the agent included weak stories and insufficient word count. However, had those manuscripts been sent directly to a POD press, they undoubtedly would have been published as is; possibly with little, if any, copyediting (and certainly no editing), which, depending on the press of course, is typically the responsibility of the submitting author.

What happens is, the author floods his own market with his short fiction collections. Each collection, without doubt, contains excellent, maybe even great, stories; but each collection also contains one or more stories that should not have been included in that particular collection, or should simply not have been collected -- ever. Consequently the author (and publisher) ends up with a good collection -- but not a great collection. The collection garners a couple or so reviews if the author is lucky, but nothing memorable comes of the book, and it is all too quickly forgotten. All the author's hardcore fans will most likely purchase the book, but beyond that? Sound familiar? I'm sure if you are a reader of short fiction, and short fiction collections in particular, an author or two comes immediately to mind.

As an acquiring editor for Golden Gryphon Press, I first contacted Alastair Reynolds via email on April 16, 2001, regarding a short story collection. Al had already published about sixteen stories as well as his first novel, Revelation Space. (Second novel, Chasm City, would appear about three weeks later.) At this point in time, I had read quite a few of Al's short stories: "Digital to Analogue" (In Dreams, edited by Paul J. McAuley and Kim Newman, 1992), "Spirey and the Queen" (Interzone, June 1996), "Great Wall of Mars" (Spectrum SF #1, February 2000), "Merlin's Gun" (Interzone, May 2000), and "Hideaway" (Interzone, July 2000). There was no doubt in my mind that Alastair Reynolds was going to be one of the preeminent SF writers in the years to come, and I wanted to be the first to snag a collection of his stories. Unfortunately, I was too late...

Al responded the following day. In the email, he raved about Golden Gryphon Press books (he said that he had just obtained a copy of the Robert Reed collection, The Dragons of Spring Place). Unfortunately, Al also informed me that about a month earlier he had made a commitment to publisher Night Shade Books for a short story collection. But here's the caveat: Al told me that he suggested to Night Shade that they wait another year or two for the collection to ensure he had a "sufficiently good core of strong stories to justify a collection." So Al chose to delay his own collection by at least two years (waiting a minimum of one year and publishing the book the following year) -- even though two small presses were clamoring for a collection now -- because he wanted to ensure a quality collection. Shocking!

I've had authors turn down my solicitation for a short story collection for a variety of reasons: they had promised a collection to another publisher (others authors, in addition to Al); they planned to include a collection as part of their next contract negotiation with their NY publisher; they could make more money with another publisher; or they were just too busy now to even bother. I've had an author respond that they passed my inquiry on to their agent, who then completely ignored me -- even after follow-up emails; some professional courtesy would have been nice, even if their response was simply to tell me to just go away. But I've never had an author turn down a short story collection because they felt they didn't have enough quality fiction to be included in the book. You have to understand my surprise because the five Reynolds stories that I mentioned above totaled nearly 65,000 words. And he had another ten or so stories in addition to these. Certainly enough word count overall, and the quality of these five particular stories was not to be questioned.

My follow-up email to Al that same day was a hardcore sales pitch. I did all I could to place Golden Gryphon in the spotlight and even suggested two different collections to Al so that both publishers would be satisfied: one collection now -- for Golden Gryphon, of course -- and a second collection in a couple years for Night Shade. Al's response? He still insisted that he didn't have enough strong stories and that he wanted to wait for another year or two, but he did like the idea of two collections, broken out by his "future history" stories (a la Revelation Space) and his other stories. I expressed my enthusiasm for either collection -- though I had a definite preference at the time for the "future history" stories. [Remember this two-collection idea for later reference.]

Fortunately, Al and I continued our email dialogue. But I'm no fool, and I anticipated Al's increasing popularity in the field, so in a May 10, 2001 email, I posed the following scenario: In a year or two from now, when Al (and Al's agent) is negotiating a new contract, his UK publisher, Gollancz, asks for a short story collection. What does he do now that he has already committed (albeit only verbally, but one trusts Al on his word) to a Night Shade Books collection? And though I didn't bring this point up, I was also concerned that Al's contract with Gollancz included first refusal rights, which would mean they would have first dibs on any collection proposal. That collection might not interest them now, with Al having published only two novels as of 2001; but what about one or two years from now? Thus my concern for delaying said collection.

In Al's response the following day, he wrote: "The points you make are good, and I can appreciate your argument about moving sooner rather than later. From what I can gather, though, there's not much enthusiasm among the mainstream UK publishers for short fiction collections, so I suspect this won't be that big an issue. Gollancz have never once mooted the possibility, or showed any interest in my non-novel activities. I suspect they'll be happy just to deal with novels from me (and if the current book stiffs, they may not want to talk novels either...!)."

I, in turn, responded to Al that I think he underestimates himself, given his newness in the field (only two novels to date), and referred to UK authors Stephen Baxter and Greg Egan (actually Australian but published in the UK), both of whom have had highly touted short story collections published by "mainstream UK publishers." Regardless, Al and I agreed to postpone any further discussion on a collection until after he completed work on his third novel.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

June-End Links & Things

The time I would have normally spent last week writing a new blog entry went into responding to interview questions from Charles Tan -- a 3,300-word interview to be more specific. The interview will appear on Bibliophile Stalker on August 25. I'll send out a link tweet when the interview appears. If you want to know what's happening in the genre, and if you enjoy reading interviews with authors, editors, and publishers, then Bibliophile Stalker, Charles Tan's blog, is a must read.

The new blog post I've been working on for this week has morphed from my original idea, and if you are a writer, whether it be fiction or nonfiction, then you know that a morphed idea can get away from you and it becomes more difficult to pull the idea together once again. I'm still working the idea.

For now, and since the end of June has passed, I'll go ahead and post my links and such from the past two weeks. There are quite a lot of them, to be sure, and hopefully everyone who reads this will find something of interest. These links are from my previous tweets. I've listed them here, all in one post, and with additional detail and comment. You can receive these links in real time by following me on Twitter.

  • I'll begin this post with one entry on singer, songwriter, and performer Michael Jackson: This is the one MJ video that everyone should watch; go ahead, it's only one minute and twenty-one seconds long. Enjoy.

  • Okay, okay, just one more... Music critic Roger Ebert's eulogy, if you will, entitled "The boy who never grew up: Michael Jackson, 1958-2009": Roger writes: "He lost happiness somewhere in his childhood, and spent his life trying to go back there and find it. When he played the Scarecrow in 'The Wiz' (1978), I think that is how he felt, and Oz was where he wanted to live. It was his most truly autobiographical role. He could understand a character who felt stuffed with straw, but could wonderfully sing and dance, and could cheer up the little girl Dorothy."

  • David Halpert on Scifi Watch (@ScifiWatch) gives us "15 Ways Publishers Can Increase Sales, Save Money, and Promote Publicity." I personally like point #11: Highlight Editors Blogs: "If there's something I love more than reading the blogs of my favorite science fiction authors, it's reading the blogs of their editors. Editors are largely the face of a publishing house, working hard behind the scenes to bring you the literature on the market today. They're also very knowledgeable and at times candid about what goes on in their daily lives....If you don't already highlight an editor's blog on your publishing website, DO SO IMMEDIATELY! It will easily increase traffic to your publishing house, and with any luck increase sales as well."

  • As promised on June 15, award-winning author Catherynne M. Valente posted online Chapter One of her new novel The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Design. She'll be posting one new chapter every week on Mondays, and estimates that she should finish the novel in time for the holidays. Each chapter will also be available as an audio download. In her current adult novel Palimpsest (Bantam Books; the main theme is a sexually transmitted dream), one of the characters referred to a children's book that she had loved; at the time, the book -- The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland -- was completely nonexistent. Not any longer. Chapters Two and Three have now been posted as well. And check out the wyvern icon at the end of Chapter Three (and future chapters) for a link to the author's audio commentary. There's a PayPal tip-jar, so to speak, on the site, and Cat is asking for your help to support her writing.

    Here's a
    background post from Cat Valente on The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Design.

  • And another writer is in financial need: Tim Pratt, author of the Hugo Award-winning short story "Impossible Dreams" (Asimov's, July 2006), plans to write and publish (every Monday) an online novella series, entitled "Bone Shop." He's hoping to support his efforts through reader donations. On Tim's Live Journal, he posts some background information on his character Marla Mason, who appears in his novels Blood Engines, Poison Sleep, Dead Reign, and Spell Games. His LJ entry also links to the Bone Shop and Marla Mason websites. And here's a link to Chapter One, posted as promised on June 29; at the end of the chapter is a link to the author's notes.

  • In a thoughtful essay aimed at e-book publishers, JA Konrath, author of the Lt. Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels thriller series, reveals his Kindle sales figures for a number of his books -- a rare disclosure from a published author. He also offers some helpful hints for those uploading books to Kindle. Konrath writes: "With 1.5 million Kindles sold, I could sell 200 books per day, for 720 days, and still only reach 10% of all Kindle buyers. If we include all of the iPhone and iPod Touch owners who can download a Kindle ap, along with continued Kindle sales, I should be able to sell quite a few books before coming close to saturating this market. If the $90 per day trend keeps up, that's $32,850 a year. Not a huge amount, but not chump change either." (via GalleyCat) $32,850 not a huge amount just from e-book sales? Of course, you gotta have a book – or books – that folks are willing to pay to download!

  • If you're a fan of the television series Fringe, and especially of actor John Noble (Denethor in The Lord of the Rings movies), you'll enjoy reading what the actor has to say of his portrayal of mad scientist Walter Bishop, via Variety: "I admire the pure part of his mind and that, fundamentally, he's a kind man. It must be terribly hard for someone of his intelligence and abilities to actually relate to anyone, but he still tries in his own Walter way."