Well Done, Book Lovers

Today I was expecting to be writing a post asking you to help a friend out. Instead I’m writing one congratulating book lovers for being wonderful people. Given how awful things are in the UK right now, this is a very welcome piece of good news.

Some of you may remember Sam Jordison as the author of a bunch of book reviews in Salon Futura back in the days when it was a semi-prozine. He’s probably better known for running the Not the Booker contest in The Guardian. But these days he should be best known as one of the people behind a small press called Galley Beggar.

While that name might not be immediately familiar, you have probably heard of a book called Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann, which has been winning various prizes over here and was on the short list for the actual Booker. Now being up for a major prize is a potentially complicated thing for a small press. Because Juliet was up for a British Fantasy Award this year I took myself off to Glasgow for a few days. Wizard’s Tower can’t really afford to send me to conventions, but I could afford this myself.

Being a finalist for the Booker is a whole different ballgame. People want your book. In Galley Beggar’s case that included an order from a company called Book People for 8,000 hardback copies of the book. That was an order worth just over £40,000. Yesterday Book People declared bankruptcy with many outstanding debts unpaid, including the invoice from Galley Beggar.

I have no idea how much money Sam and his partner take from the company, but £40,000 is round twice my annual income, and that’s from three jobs of which Wizard’s Tower is the least profitable. I’m sure you can imagine what sort of a hole that would make in the finances of a small press.

So this morning Sam’s partner, Eloise Millar, launched a crowdfunding campaign so see if the great book-loving public could help them plug that gap in their finances.

It fully funded earlier this evening.

That’s incredible, people. Well done. I am so happy that a great little publishing company has been saved.

If only we could channel that sort of sentiment to save the country.

Historical Fiction at Bath Spa

I spent yesterday at Bath Spa University (the beautiful Newton Park campus) at a conference on writing historical fiction. This is a brief report on the event.

First up I should note that this conference differs from the Historical Fiction Research Network conferences in that it is primarily for students of creative writing, and for working writers. I think I was the only speaker presenting as an historian as opposed to a writer, literary critic or publishing industry expert. Both conferences have value in their own way.

I knew that it was going to be an interesting day right from the start when the opening speaker, Alan Bilton from Swansea University, started talking about postmodernism and whether we can ever know what really happened in the past. We largely managed to avoid going down any Alt-Right rabbit holes, but it did lead to someone asking about authenticity, own voices and so on. And straight down another rabbit hole we went.

When these discussions start (and particularly when they start on social media) they tend to devolve into an argument with people on one side saying that writers should be allowed to write whatever characters they want, and people on the other saying that only people with lived experience of certain types of characters should be allowed to write those characters.

Repeat after me, please: All binaries are false.

As it happens, I’m a big fan of own voices work. If I’m going to read a book set in, say, Mexico City, I would much rather read one written by someone who has lived there (e.g. Silvia Moreno Garcia) than by someone whose knowledge of the city comes entirely from Wikipedia. (And yes, that is another false binary.) But this isn’t the entirety of the disucssion. When it was my turn to get up to speak I made the point that if only trans people were allowed to write trans characters then only around 1% of fiction would contain trans characters, and this would be a bad thing because we desperately need positive portrayals of trans people in fiction right now.

One of the ways around this is to employ a sensitivity reader. Of course that term is a red rag to the more conservative end of the industry, but it shouldn’t be. There was a good example to hand, because Alan had been talking about his forthcoming novel which happens to be set in Russia. He mentioned that he’d relied heavily on a Russian-born colleague for advice. That’s using a sensitivity reader. Most science fiction readers would applaud an author who had worked with actual astronauts, or actual astrophysicists, to get scientific details right. That too is using a sensitivity reader. It is no different from asking for help to make sure that you get Polynesian culture, or non-binary identity, right in your book. Except that if you are asking for help from someone from a marginalised group for help you should probably be paying them, rather than offering a few beers or a favour in return.

My talk, by the way, was a slightly rushed and less interactive version of my workshop on writing queer characters from history. A few folks on Twitter expressed interest in it. I’d be very happy to run it at other events in the future.

The final session of the conference was an industry panel featuring literary agent, Kate Horden; novelist and publisher Lorna Gray; and the historical fiction reviewer for The Times, Antonia Senior. It turned out that Antonia is related by marriage to Amal El-Mohtar and can therefore talk knowledgeably about the difference between the SF&F and historical fiction communities. I found myself nodding along to pretty much everything she said because every book critic has the same issues with too many books and the foolishness of the publishing industry. She had also read and reviewed Shadows of Athens, which made me very happy.

Because the attendees of the conference were almost all women, there was some interest in questions of author identity, use of initials and so on. If anyone wants to follow up on that, I warmly recommend Juliet McKenna’s essay, “The Myth of Meritocracy”, in Gender Identity and Sexuality in Fantasy and Science Fiction, the British Fantasy Award Winning book from Luna Press. Juliet goes through the entire pipeline of the publishing and bookselling industry and shows, with data and references, how it is stacked in favour of straight, white men at every turn.

If it were up to me I’d make that essay required reading on all creative writing syllabi.

There were other great sessions as well. I enjoyed discussing theoretical approaches to writing historical fiction with Melissa Addy (I hope you enjoy Guy Gavriel Kay, Melissa). I was delighted to meet British-based Serbian writer, Senja Andrejevic-Bullock, who had really interesting things to say regarding writing about recent wars when you are from a people who are regarded as the bad guys. I learned a lot about women at sea from Sarah Tanburn, and about the hidden meanings in Pieter Bruegel’s paintings from Lisa Koning. I even met someone who has written feminist science fiction. Hello Lania Knight!

Huge thanks to Celia Brayfield and Bea Hitchman for organising the event. I understand that there are plans to run the conference again next year, and it will be at the University of Gloucester. I’ll let you know when I have more details.

Today on Ujima – Books, Theatre, Trans Pride & Tobias Buckell

My first guest on today’s radio show was Kate MacDonald of Handheld Press, a wonderful local publisher based in Bath. Kate will be familiar to people on the UK SF&F circuit as she was at FantasyCon and BristolCon. She doesn’t just publish SF&F, but when she does it is pretty spectacular. You will have heard me enthusing about her Vonda McIntyre reissue, and she has had great success with a Nicola Griffith book. On the show we talked about a book by Rose Maculey which inspired Brave New World. John Clute gets a starring role in the story of how Kate got to publish that one. And if we’d had more time we’d have talked about the new Sylvia Townsend Warner book, Of Cats and Elfins, which has a Greer Gilman introduction and a Neil Gaiman front cover blurb.

That was hard to top, but for the second section of the show I welcomed Nick Young from Creative Youth Network and two wonderful young actors who will be performing in The Edge, a play about the dangers of reality TV. The play is written by my friend Edson Burton, and will be staged at Colston Hall later this month. As the advertising says, it will be an immersive live performance. You’ll have to listen to the interview to find out just how clever they have been.

In part three I welcome Lowie Trevena, the new LGBT+ Affairs correspondent of Bristol 24/7 to talk about the upcoming Trans Pride South West. Lowie did a preview of the event for the paper yesterday, and we went a lot more into detail on that. We also talked about what it means to be a non-binary person, and how non-binary does not mean androgynous.

Finally I re-ran parts of my 2014 interview with Tobias Buckell to celebrate his win (along with Paulo Bacigalupi) in the World Fantasy Awards last weekend. Their book, The Tangled Lands, won the Best Collection catageory. In the 2014 piece Tobias and I talk about hurricanes in the Caribbean, climate change, and some interesting regional politics that allowed Tobias to create a unified Caribbean state for some of his work.

You can listen to the show here.

The playlist is as follows:

  • Pipe – Christina Aguilera & Lewis Hamilton
  • World in Union – Ladysmith Black Mambazo (feat. PJ Powers)
  • Screen Kiss – Thomas Dolby
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Televised – Gil Scott Heron
  • History – Shea Freedom
  • Sticks and Stones – Jackie Shane
  • Hurricane Season – Trombone Shorty
  • 007 – A Fantasy Bond Theme – Barry Adamson

Today on Ujima – PapayaFest, Discrimination at Work, Fungi & Ellen Datlow

I did a radio show today. Here’s what went down.

I started out with a visit from my good friend Tamsin Clarke. We kept our clothes on this time. As you may recall, Tamsin is from Venezuela. She has been putting together a festival of Latinx culture called PapayaFest. It will feature Tamsin’s theatre productions and a great line-up of bands and DJs. Because Tamsin has such great topics for her plays we ended up talking about Simón Bolívar, matriarchal families and the current state of feminism in Latin America.

Next up I was joined by Karen and Erin from Bristol Law Centre. They have come up with an interesting new way of funding employment discrimination cases and they wanted to get the word out there. I was pleased to be able to point out what good work they do, and how necessary they have become because of the current government’s actions designed to make recourse to the law something that is only available to the very rich.

Guest three was my friend Esme who has got involved with mushrooms. They really are fascinating life forms, and most people have no idea how many types of fungi there are, or how crucial they are both to the ecosystem and to many modern industries. There will be a Fungus Day at Arnos Vale Cemetery on Saturday, which I’d be very tempeted to go along to if I wasn’t booked elsewhere.

And finally I ran part of the interview I did with Ellen Datlow at TitanCon. This extract includes how she got her job at Omni, what “best of the year” means, who is the only writer ever to have scared her, and why she once turned down a story by Margaret Atwood. The full interview will run in Salon Futura at the end of the month.

You can hear the whole show via Ujima’s Listen Again service here.

The playlist for this month’s show is as follows:

  • Simón Díaz – Caballo Viejo
  • WARA – Leave to Remain
  • Rodrigo y Gabriela – Hanuman
  • Elsa J – 9 to 5
  • Carlos Santana – Flor d’Luna
  • Janelle Monáe – Mushrooms & Roses
  • Sade – Nothing can come between us
  • Michael Jackson – Thriller

News From Juliet

For the past year or so I have been party to a small publishing secret. Juliet McKenna has a secret identity as JM Alvey, a mild mannered writer of crime novels set in ancient Greece.

It’s not a very serious secret. Anyone who has turned up to an Alvey signing will have spotted who is writing the books, and if you checked out where Alvey’s website is hosted you might put two and two together. But in the wild and whacky world of publishing such subtefuge is often necessary to persuade bookstores to stock volumes by an author whose recent sales have been less that stellar.

Anyway, for a variety of reasons that Juliet doesn’t want to dwell upon, Mx Alvey’s career seems to have come to a premature end. Consequently she’s free to write about it, and if today’s social media is anything to go by that’s lead to an immediate increase in interest in the books. I know that Juliet has many fans out there, including some who would pay good money for a shopping list if she’d written it. I’m happy to add to getting the world out now that I can.

This Week on Ujima – It’s All Books

It is ridiculously hard to get people into the studio in the first week of January, because most of them won’t even look at their email until that Monday. So I was happy to have a bunch of interviews pre-recorded that I could run for this week’s radio show. It was good for Ben too because we have moved studios. While the new desk has all of the same controls, they are in different places, and that takes a bit of getting used to. It is like switching from a left-hand-drive to a right-hand-drive car.

The first hour of the show had an interview with Tade Thompson that I recorded at FantasyCon, and one with Joy Francis from an organisation called Words of Colour, which was recorded when she was in Bristol to give a talk in December.

In the second hour I have the interview I did with Maria Dahvana Headley when she was in Oxford. This is pretty much solid feminist ranting from both of us. And finally there is an interview with Joanne Harris that I recorded at FantasyCon.

The show is available through the Ujima Listen Again service here. The raw interviews were all longer than I had time for in the show, particularly the one with Maria. I’m planning to post longer versions on Salon Futura once the Listen Again links have expired.

The play list for this week’s show was:

  • Janelle Monáe – I’m Afraid
  • Angélique Kidjo – Once in a Lifetime
  • Des’ree – You gotta be
  • The O Jays – Love Train
  • Janelle Monáe – Heroes
  • Bruce Springsteen – Badlands
  • Bat for Lashes – Seal Jubilee
  • Camel – La Princess Perdue

The February show will, of course, be an LGBT History Month special.

After the Flood

Following yesterday’s excitment, things are returning slowly to normal here at Wizard’s Tower. The Green Man’s Heir is no longer on sales at 99p, and is no longer receiving special promotion from Amazon. However, the effects of that promotion linger on. As I type this, the book is still ranked #6 in all fiction sales on Amazon UK, and is still #1 in science fiction and fantasy. That is still leading to a pleasing level of sales, though obviously nowhere near yesterday’s flood.

As a publisher, what interests me is the long-term effect of all this. How long will the sales rank stay high enough to keep the book easily visible on the Amazon website? How many of yesterday’s thousands of purchases will result in reviews, or returns? What will the effect be on the sale of Juliet’s other books? Only time will tell, but I will be keeping an eye on the data. Other small press owners may well be interested.

In the meantime I’m just going to keep staring at that screenshot at the top of this post. There are no Hugos for Best Publisher, but I’ll happily take that instead.

Best Seller!

Much to the delight of Juliet and myself, The Green Man’s Heir has been selling very steadily ever since it was published. A couple of years back Kameron Hurley got a lot of notice for this blog post in which she explained that the average book sells 3000 copies in its lifetime. Given that Wizard’s Tower is a very small press, I’m not surprised that nothing we had published to date had reached that milestone. (Although of course we major in reprints and many of the books we published did sell that well in previous incarnations.)

The Green Man’s Heir was different. It was a brand new novel, something we had never done before, but from our best-selling writer, Juliet E. McKenna. I hoped it would do well, but didn’t have huge expectations. I was really pleased by how well it was selling. What I didn’t expect was what that would lead to.

Someone at Amazon clearly noticed that the book was doing very well, and that it was getting stellar reviews. They offered us the opportunity to be part of a promotion, though without giving much detail. I asked Juliet and she said yes, so we signed up and a week or so later we got an email saying that the book would be a “Daily Deal” at £0.99 on August 13th. Just the UK, one day only. Does that make a difference?

You bet it does. To start with there’s this, which I shall be proud of for the rest of my publishing career:

#1 in Fantasy

That, of course, is a result of numbers. Looking at the sales numbers, I am now confident the The Green Man’s Heir will sell 3000 copies today.

No, not that it will pass 3000 copies lifetime, it will sell over 3000 copies today, which will mean it is heading for 5000 copies lifetime.

The really interesting thing about this, however, is that the vast majority of the sales, both prior to today and during today, have been in the UK. US sales haven’t really taken off. The Daily Deal promotion is UK-only, but Amazon US have chosen to put the book on sale. Kevin reports that it is $4.16, down from a list price of $5.99. So why not get in on the act, America? Find out what thousands of British readers have been getting excited about.

UK readers, if you don’t have your copy yet, you can get it here.

US readers, the link for you is here.

Paper copies are available from both stores. If you are going to be at Worldcon you will be able to find the book in the Dealers’ Room on the Cargo Cult table.

New Venue for Queer Historical Fiction

Earlier this week Manifold Press announced a re-launch and change of management. Farah Mendlesohn will be the new Managing Editor, and the company is looking for works of historical fiction with queer themes. Knowing Farah, I’m sure this will be a great venture, and if only I a) had some time, and b) could write better, I know just the book I’d pitch her.

Those of you who fancy writing queer historical fiction, you now know where you can get a favorable hearing. That includes trans-themed historical fiction. If you need ideas for that, you know where to come, right?

Not Korean Enough?

Book Twitter today, in between the excitement over the US elections, has been busy fuming over this tweet:

It is a particularly crass example of something which I fear is rather more common than we’d like to think, particularly in literary fiction (or at least fiction that thinks of itself as literary). It is also an example of the sort of thing I was talking about in my paper at the conference in Italy.

Now of course I was talking about trans people in fiction. How does that relate to Koreans? Well, in the case above what I think the editor is really saying is not that Chang’s characters are not Asian enough, but that they don’t sufficiently conform to the editor’s stereotypical idea of what a Korean-American character should be like. In other words, the editor doesn’t want authentic Asian characters, what they want are characters that will appeal to the book’s presumed straight, cis, able-bodied, white audience, of whom the editor assumes themself to be typical.

The same is true of trans people trying to write authentic characters. Here’s a quote from Meredith Russo, author of If I Was Your Girl, after she was asked in an interview to give advice to trans authors who want to get published.

Like, right now, the story that the cis world is most ready for and willing to accept is like “The Danish Girl”. It’s like “hello, I am a trans person, hello, I am a boy who thinks he is supposed to be a girl. Here’s me dealing with it. Here’s a very heavy emphasis on how all my cis friends and family feel about it. I might die. I’ll probably be heartbroken at the end.”

See the similarity? Russo is saying that publishers don’t want authentic trans characters, they want characters that conform to a cis readership’s expectations of a trans character. Nicola Griffith tells me that disabled people face similar issues.

The good news is that, with the small sample size I have of recent YA books about trans people (the subject of my paper) it seems much easier to get an authentic portrayal published in genre fiction. My theory is that’s because the publishers of genre fiction don’t think that character is all there is to a book. They are happy to buy a book on the basis of the plot, and not worry whether the readers will demand certain narratives for the characters.

New SF Magazine Launching

I have received notification of a new speculative fiction magazine that will be launching soon. Titled Persistent Visions, it will be edited by Heather Shaw who has an excellent track record in both short fiction and editing. They plan to pay 7c a word, and their submission guidelines suggest that they are committed to diversity and to supporting new writers. That sounds promising. I might even send them something myself.

Zoran Živković News

Some excellent news for fellow fans of the Serbian writer, Zoran Živković. A company called Cadmus Press will be publishing his entire back catalog in English. Zoran has an announcement here.

Naturally I Googled Cadmus to see who they were. I found this:

Cadmus Press was founded to answer a growing need for enjoyable, high-quality, and easily available English translations of outstanding literature from Eastern and and Southeastern Europe.

The region known as Eastern Europe is familiar as the vague geographical area between Western Europe and Russia, mostly parts of the former Soviet Union. Southeastern Europe is less familiar, but generally includes (according to Wikipedia) “Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Kosovo, Moldova, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, and partially Turkey, Italy and Slovenia.” This part of the world has been a nexus of cross-cultural pollination since ancient times, creating a rich and diverse cultural and literary heritage that is yet poorly represented in the English language.

We hope to bring some of its finest work into English, the modern world’s lingua franca, to help it achieve the international acclaim it so richly deserves.

Currently Zoran is their only signed author, but it sounds like an admirable project. Hopefully Zoran’s books will do well for them and help finance bringing other authors to our attention.

Terri Windling’s Tolkien Lecture

The good folks at Pembroke College videoed the whole of Terri Windling’s Tolkien Lecture, so you will be able to enjoy it yourselves soon. However, while you are waiting, here are a few thoughts from me. I should make clear at the start that I’m pulling a couple of key themes out of the lecture and following them up with my own interpretation. Terri may disagree (and hopefully will say so if she does).

Right at the beginning of the lecture Terri made the point that it is in the nature of fantasy to be unknowable. She went on to lament the absence of the numinous from much modern fantasy. I’m right with her there. I think there are two areas where this is so.

In epic fantasy I think we see too much of what I call “Dungeons and Dragons stories”. Back when I did a lot of GMing, there was a big rift among RPG players between those who saw the activity as “just games”, and who required clear and obvious rule systems so you could work out the optimal strategy, and those who saw the activity as more like communal improvised free-form story-telling. I was very much in the story-telling camp.

A lot of modern epic fantasy, however, seems to me to be more in the game playing camp, because writers design their worlds in such detail that it is obvious how everything works, even magic. There’s no room for the numinous in such a world. Indeed, a hard-core gamer would regard such a thing as “cheating”. Everything has to be capable of being explained within the rules.

As far as urban fantasy goes, much of what we see these days with such a tag is more crime or romance fiction with a few super-powered characters than fantasy. Some of it is very good crime and/or romance, but that doesn’t mean that it is good fantasy. Once again, the magic is not magical.

Terri also lamented the absence of sense of place from modern fantasy. Again I agree. There’s something about magic, I think, that is rooted in the land. With modern fantasy fiction we see too much of the generic castles and taverns of FantasyLand, and too much of the generic mean streets of a cookie-cutter modern city where every shopping mall contains the same chain stores.

This isn’t always the case. One of the reasons I love Emma Newman’s Split Worlds books is the way she uses locations such as Bath and Oxford to give a sense of the longevity of the fairy folk. Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police books were rightly mentioned by an audience member as an example of urban fantasy with a strong sense of place. Authors can and do get it right, but they have to put in the effort.

Something else that I think is often missing from modern fantasy, to its detriment, is music. I don’t mean the tendency of fantasy authors to fill their books with bad poetry passed off as song, I mean the sense that music is integral to the world and its magic. Whether it be high elven choral pieces, dwarvish drinking songs, tragic folk ballads, or orcish death metal, music has the ability to draw in that sense of the numinous whose absence Terri laments.

None of this should surprise us, of course. Publishers today are looking for product, not art. Terri mentioned that small presses are doing really good work still. I suspect that’s more the case in the US than in the UK because the bigger market makes it easier to take a punt on something different. However, distribution is much easier these days, especially if you are happy with ebooks, so a lot more of us can benefit. (And a nod of sympathy here to Charles Tan because I know there are parts of the world where buying online isn’t simple.)

Anyway, that’s my 2c worth. Juliet has a few thoughts here. And hopefully the video will be available soon.

My thanks as ever to the good folks at Pembroke for putting on a great show. As is often the case with universities, some of those involved are moving on having completed their studies. However, it looks like a committee is being put in place to ensure that the lecture series continues long into the future. Roll on next year.

Fringe, Dead Sherlock & Writing as a Woman

Last night’s BristolCon Fringe was really good. The podcasts will be available in due course, but you can hear Paul Cornell read from Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? at his previous Fringe appearance in March last year.

Martyn Waites chose to read from one of the stories he had written under his Tania Carver pen name. Naturally I was interested to know how writing as a woman worked for him. After all, we hear endless stories of how women in SF&F have to hide their gender in order to get published, or because they fear that their books will be ignored otherwise.

Again Martyn’s full explanation of the story will be in the podcast, but I wanted to highlight a few things here. First up, the whole thing came about somewhat by accident. His editor was bemoaning the lack of a hard-edged British female crime writer and Martyn, being a former actor and wise to the ways of freelancing, immediately said, “I can do that, gis a job”.

The important point, however, is that it worked. Tania’s first book was heavily promoted and became a best seller. The question is, why? How does this sort of thing work in crime but not in SF&F?

Martyn has some ideas. I do too. One thing that particularly fascinated me was Martyn’s assertion that women like gory crime stories. So why is there this impression that they would not like equally gory fantasy?

On the spot I came up with a panel idea for BristolCon. Obviously the idea has to be approved by MEG and pass the audience interest test, and participants have to agree, but hopefully we can make it work. I’d want to chair it, and have Martyn on the panel. I’d also want Sarah Pinborough who is one of this year’s Guests of Honour and a purveyor of gory horror tales, and Sarah Hilary who is turning out to be exactly the sort of crime writer that Martyn’s editor was looking for when they invented Tania. I think the panel also needs a publisher representative, and probably a male one for panel parity reasons. Any volunteers?

The 2015 VIDA Count

VIDA’s survey of gender bias in literary reviewing was published last week. You can find piles of infographics and some analysis here.

The basic message is “more of the same”. A few magazines — notably Harper’s and The New Republic — have made significant improvements. Granta continues to score well. But magazines such as the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books and The London Review of Books continue to be bastions of the Patriarchy.

This year for the first time VIDA choose to look at a range of other identities that intersect with that of woman. They surveyed ethnicity, sexuality, ability and gender identity (although the report in The Guardian carefully omitted any mention of gender identity because we wouldn’t want to think that VIDA was no-platforming anyone, would we?). Inevitably the numbers were fairly depressing, but beyond that there’s not much we can say until we have new data next year to make comparisons. My congratulations to Poetry and Tin House, both of which managed more than 0.5% of bylines by trans women.

Another Open Door Period

I have email from HarperVoyager announcing an Open Door period for submissions. As with the Angry Robot one I wrote about last week, this means that you can send them manuscripts direct without having to go through an agent.

Full details should be available here, but it looks like the site is creaking under the excess level of traffic right now so I can’t be sure. The link should at least direct you to where you need to be.

What I do know is that you don’t have long. Angry Robot gave you the whole of NanoWriMo to write the book. HarperVoyager are looking for submissions in early November, so unless you have something ready this is probably not enough notice. But I know a lot of you do have something. Good luck!

Angry Robot Open Door Period

I was talking the other day about how one of the barriers to getting published for people from diverse backgrounds is the agent system, whereby you can’t get your book in front of a publisher unless you have an agent, and agents often assume that publishers won’t buy from anyone but straight, cis, white writers. Well, there are ways around that. The folks at Angry Robot are currently having an Open Door Period, which means that you can send them your manuscript direct. What’s more they say:

We want to explicitly invite writers from diverse backgrounds and lived experiences to submit to this Open Door.

They mean it too. They have published Wes Chu and Ramez Naam. They published Colin Harvey’s Damage Time, which is a book about a Muslim man and an intersex woman; and Laura Lam’s Bisexual Book Award winning Pantomime. They publish Kameron Hurley, who takes no prisoners on any subject. And they published Lauren Beukes even though she lives in South Africa and had no track record in novels at the time.

Full details of how and went to send your book to them can be found here.

Bath Does Diversity

Yes, yes, I know. Diversity in Bath generally means something like whether you would allow people to have Merlot with Sunday lunch rather than the more traditional Claret. However, yesterday the Bath Children’s Literature Festival ran a Daily Telegraph Debate” on the subject of diversity in children’s books. “What could possibly go wrong?” I wondered. I was also pleasantly surprised.

Although the event was billed as a “debate” it turned out to be anything but, at least to begin with, because all of the members of the panel were convinced of the need for more diversity in books for children. We live in a very multi-cultural society, and it is just plain daft that the majority of books published for kids cater to middle class white children from wholly cisgender, hetero-normative backgrounds. The situation is even more stark in the USA. A recent Nielsen survey has revealed that only half of child readers under the age of nine are white.

The panel was made of of Lorna Bradbury (Daily Telegraph book reviews editor, Chair), Liz Kessler (author, also lesbian person), Shannon Cullen (Random Penguin, Kiwi) and Bali Rai (author, also non-white person). Basically Lorna asked the questions, Shannon tried hard to convince is that that the publishing industry was doing all it could, Liz was kind and conciliatory, and Bali did the Angry Brown Person thing. Bali was awesome.

There were some slight mis-steps, most notably when Bali appeared to give the impression that sexuality was a choice. When called on it he immediately realized his mistake and apologized for his poor use of words. Aside from that you might have come away with the impression that all was rosy and multi-cultural in KidLit land. Certainly the Bath Chronicle did.

It wasn’t until we got to audience questions that we actually got some debate, and mostly that centered around what doing diversity actually means. If you have read my essay on writing trans characters over at Strange Horizons you’ll be aware that there can be a great deal of difference between writing a trans character and writing a trans character that trans people are actually likely to identify with. That sort of problem doesn’t just happen with trans folk. It can happen with just about any “minority” group if the books being written are all written by, and intended to appeal to, middle class white folks.

Where I got involved was when the panel started talking about “universal stories”, because so often that is a code term for “stories that white people can relate to”. Of course things like falling in love, having parents die, and so on can happen to anyone, but the way we tell those stories can be very different. Someone mentioned that if you have a story about aliens visiting Earth, why couldn’t they drop in on a Somali family rather than a white one? Well, there’s Lagoon, a book that I dearly love. It is a book about an alien invasion that happens, not in New York or London, but in Lagos. Nnedi has made no compromises in writing it. It is a book full of Nigerian people and full of issues of interest to Nigerian people. I’m delighted, and somewhat surprised, that it got published in the UK and USA. It is not what most people would think of when they talk about “universal stories”.

Bali made a very similar point when he noted that he’d been taken to task by white editors over the language his characters use. He knows far better than they do how kids of South Asian ancestry living in Leicester actually speak.

Of course it isn’t easy making diversity happen. We are very lucky to have people like Shannon championing the diversity cause within publishers, but she can’t just publish what she wants. She has to work withing the constraints of the industry. Go back and listen to Kristine Kathryn Rusch in the Coode Street podcast I linked to yesterday for an industry insider’s view of how changes in the structure of the book industry have resulted in an obsessive focus on best-sellers.

As a publisher myself, and as someone with a lot of friends in the business, I know a bit about how things work. When you ask publishers why they don’t publish more of a particular type of book they’ll probably note that they don’t get enough submissions of that type from agents, and that they have trouble placing such books with the major bookstore chains. Let’s look at both of those issues.

Yes, publishers could go out and look for the books they want, but they use agents for a reason: it saves them lots of time and effort. Agents, of course, may have fixed and erroneous ideas of what publishers actually want. And they may not have the right clients. Bali made the point that most of the non-white writers he knows are self-publishing rather than going through the traditional publishing route because they assume that the overwhelmingly white publishing industry won’t be interested in their books. Shannon was impressively voluble on the subject of helping writers who are not from white, middle class backgrounds to navigate the gatekeeping process so that people like her get to see the sort of books they want to publish.

At the other end of the process, failing to impress the buyer from Waterstones or Barnes & Noble can be the kiss of death for a book. That’s less of a problem if you are Random Penguin and can offer to throw a fortune at marketing a book, but a real issue for smaller publishers. The bookstores, on the other hand, will say it isn’t their fault. They know what sells and what doesn’t, and they have to make a living just like anyone else. If the only people coming into their shops are middle class white people, they will only stock books aimed at middle class white people.

Now of course the reason other people don’t go into bookstores might just be that the shops only stock books aimed at middle class white folks. However, some of those middle class white people claim to be pro-diversity. Here’s Lavie Tidhar:

He has a point. It is all very well campaigning for more diverse books on Twitter, but you have to buy them too. Six weeks ago I re-issued Colin Harvey’s novel, Damage Time. The lead characters are a Muslim man and an intersex woman. Colin could have done things a bit better, but how many books do you know of with intersex characters who are key to the plot and have agency. I wrote a blog post about why I was republishing the book. Want to guess how many people bought the book on the strength of that?

Zero.

The 2014 SF&F Count

Yesterday Strange Horizons published their annual statistics on gender and race balance in SF&F. The full article is here. I’m pleased to see that they are now acknowledging non-binary people in the count. The data is only for the US and UK, but as those markets tend to dominate all other English-speaking markets we’re seeing a significant proportion of the Anglophone world here.

There are a few points I’d like to highlight:

  • Involvement of people of color in the industry is still woefully low
  • As usual, the stats for the UK are worse than those for the USA, on both gender and race
  • The proportion of books published by people who do not identify as male was lower last year, in both countries, than in any previous year that the count has been made

Ouch.

Lawyers Gone Crazy

I was checking Twitter on my way to Heathrow today when I stumbled upon the latest piece of excitement to hit my author friends. Apparently some large publishers are now demanding “non-compete” clauses in book contracts. Yes, that’s right, if you want to sign with them you have to agree not to write for anyone else in the meantime, not even under another name.

As far as I know, this doesn’t apply to individual short stories (the figure of under 35k was quoted), or to backlists, but I can imagine it applying to a collection of short fiction. So, for example, if Juliet or Lyda were to sell a new novel to a major publisher, they’d be told that they couldn’t put out a collection of short fiction with me. Even if it was in another universe. Even if the major publisher didn’t want to publish it.

The phrase “anti-competitive” may have flitted through my mind.

I’m sure this is nothing to do with the editors at the big publishing houses. They are sensible people who are doubtless just as outraged about this as their authors are. It is the corporate lawyers at the multi-national media companies who won those publishers trying it on. And if they get away with this they will doubtless want to claim ownership of all of the creative content next.

Oh well, it gives SFWA something constructive to do. As a publisher, I’m officially the enemy, but in this case I think they’ll be fighting on my side.