Friday, February 05, 2010

Advance Notice

I've already posted the front of the cover for the Pyr edition of Gardens of the Sun; but here's the whole thing, front and back, ready for publication in March. Thanks once again to artist Sparth for such a dynamic and imposing piece of 'spaceship epicness' artwork. He's working on the cover for the Pyr edition of Cowboy Angels, out later this year, and the rough I've seen is pretty damn good too.

Readers can sample a big chunk of the novel for free. Here's the the first chapter, followed by a link to the rest:
A hundred murdered ships swung around Saturn in endless ellipses. Slender freighters and sturdy tugs. Shuttles that had once woven continuous and ever-changing paths between the inhabited moons. Spidery surface-to-orbit gigs. The golden crescent of a clipper, built by a cooperative just two years ago to ply between Saturn and Jupiter, falling like a forlorn fairy-tale moon past the glorious arch of the ring system. Casualties of a war recently ended.

Most were superficially intact but hopelessly compromised, AIs driven insane by demons disseminated by Brazilian spies, fusion motors and control and life-support systems toasted by microwave bursts or EMP mines. In the frantic hours after their ships had been killed, surviving crews and passengers had attempted to make repairs or signal for help with lasers pried from dead comms packages, or had composed with varying degrees of resignation, despair and anger last messages to their families and friends. In the freezing dark of her sleeping niche, aboard a freighter sliding past the butterscotch bands at Saturn’s equator, the poet Lexis Parrander had written in blood on the blank screen of her slate We are the dead.

They were the dead. No one responded to the distress signals they aimed at the inhabited moons or the ships of the enemy. Some zipped themselves into sleeping niches and took overdoses, or opened veins at their wrists, or fastened plastic bags over their heads. Others, hoping to survive until rescue came, pulled on pressure suits and willed themselves into the deep, slow sleep of hibernation. In one ship people fought and killed each other because there were not enough pressure suits to go around. In another, they huddled around an impedance heater lashed up from cable and fuel cells, a futile last stand against the advance of the implacable cold.

Many of the ships, fleeing towards Uranus when they’d been killed, had planned to pick up speed by gravity-assist manoeuvres around Saturn. Now they traced lonely paths that took them close around the gas giant and flung them out past the ring system and the orbits of the inner moons before reaching apogee and falling back. A few travelled even further outwards, past the orbits of Titan, Hyperion, or even Iapetus.

And here was the black arrowhead of a Brazilian singleship approaching the farthest point of an orbit that was steeply inclined above the equatorial plane and had taken it more than twenty million kilometres from Saturn, into the lonely realm where scattered swarms of tiny moons traced long and eccentric paths. Inside its sleek hull, a trickle charge from a lithium-ion battery kept its coffin-sized lifesystem at 4̊ Centigrade, and its mortally wounded pilot slept beyond the reach of any dream.

A spark of fusion flame flared in the starry black aft of the singleship. A ship was approaching: a robot tug that was mostly fuel tank and motor, drawing near and matching the eccentric axial spin of the crippled singleship with firecracker bursts from clusters of attitude jets until the two ships spun together like comically disproportionate but precisely synchronised ice-skaters. The tug sidled closer and made hard contact, docking with latches along the midline of the singleship’s flat belly. After running through a series of diagnostic checks, the tug killed its burden’s spin and turned it through a hundred and eighty degrees and fired up its big fusion motor. The blue-white spear of the exhaust stretched kilometres beyond the coupled ships, altering their delta vee and their high, wide orbit, pushing them towards Dione and rendezvous with the flagship of the Greater Brazilian fleet.
More after the jump...

Wednesday, February 03, 2010


At some point that day, Hitler returned to the relative comfort of his two-story farmhouse billet, opened this hardbound volume, and laid claim to its content in a notably timid hand, scribbling his name and place and date in the upper-right-hand corner of the inside cover in a space no larger than that of a postage stamp.

Eighty years later, Osborne's book attests to its frontline service. Blunted and brown, the corners curl inward like dried lemon rind. The spine dangles precariously from frayed linen tendons, exposing the thread-laced signatures like so many rows of rope-bound bones . . . When I opened this fragile volume in the Rare Book Reading Room in the Library of Congress, with the muffled sounds of late-morning traffic wafting through the hushed silence, a fine grit drizzled from its pages.
Timothy W. Ryback, Hitler's Private Library

Monday, February 01, 2010


So I was going to write something about ebooks, beginning with a note about the ongoing evolutionary process and Apple’s iPad, the latest but certainly not the last ereader to emerge from the thrashing recombinatory process of that particular gene pool, and then moving on to write about how this would affect the profession of writing - which is where I got bogged down in mechanics and economics that, frankly, bored me. And while I was still thinking about that, there was a brief but vicious turf war between Amazon and the publisher Macmillan in the US, in which Amazon delisted all of Macmillan’s titles, only to back down after a couple of days, possibly because it realised that hurting authors and readers didn’t make for good PR.

The spat was ostensibly over pricing, but actually it was about market control. Essentially, Amazon wants to become both wholesaler and bookseller, and to dictate recommended retail price of the stuff it sells. Macmillan, wanting to keep control of the stuff it produces, expects Amazon to act as an agency, supplying books to customers at prices dictated by Macmillan. There have been plenty of good analyses on various authors’ blogs of what happened and what it means; go check out these links if you want more detail.

It’s clear from the comments on those blog pieces is that an awful lot of people think that Amazon is the reader’s friend. No, it isn’t. Yes, it supplies a vast range of books at attractive prices: and in the case of ebooks delivers them to the reader’s Kindle directly and quickly. But it is also a very big capitalist enterprise that wants, quite naturally, to maximise profits and undercut the business models of its rivals. And it wants to do that selling as many Kindles as possible, by tempting customers with deeply discounted prices on ebooks and locking them into its supply chain.

It also became clear that many readers think that ebooks are too expensive. It doesn’t cost much to produce or to distribute them, the argument goes; in fact, duplicating ebooks is virtually free. So why aren’t they as cheap - if not cheaper - than paperbacks? Three reasons.

First, printing and distribution costs are a much smaller percentage of a book’s retail price than many imagine, and all the production work needed to publish a regular book - editing, design, typesetting, marketing and publicity - is also needed to produce an ebook. Second, publishers’ profit margins are a very small percentage of a book’s RRP. If they’re cut much further, the entire present-day publishing model will collapse.* Some think that will be a Good Thing, in the same way that some cock-eyed optimists thought the Internet would be full of nothing but stimulating creativity, high-minded democratic discourse, rainbows, and puppies; imagine trying to sort the good stuff from the fire-hydrant flood of the indifferent and bad if all authors were forced to self-publish through the kind of monopolistic content supplier that Amazon so dearly wants to become. Amongst other things, publishers are useful - albeit not always accurate - filters.

And third, books aren’t that expensive. No, really. My first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars, was published in1988, a paperback original in the US, a hardback in the UK. The hardback was published by Gollancz, and most of the print run was sold to libraries (it was had one of the last of Gollancz’s famous yellow dust jackets, designed for easy recognition by browsers). Its RRP was £11.95, and that was the price you paid in every bookshop in the land, under the old net book agreement. My most recent book, Gardens of the Sun, was also published by Gollancz, in 2009. The RRP of the hardback is £18.99. Compared to the 1988 price, that’s cheap. The retail price index of 2009, the best measure of high-street inflation, is about twice that of 1988, so the RRP of the 2009 hardback, at 1988 prices, should be £23.61. But wait - there’s no longer a net book agreement. Booksellers don’t have to sell the book at the RRP, and many don’t. Amazon sells it at £12.28. And then there’s the trade paperback edition - same content, published at same time, at an RRP of £14.99, discounted by Amazon to £8.99. Much less than the price of the hardback of my first novel, even without taking inflation into account. What a deal!

It’s a slightly different story when it comes to paperbacks. Hardback prices haven’t kept pace with inflation; paperback prices have. Back in the late 1980s, Gollancz didn’t publish paperbacks, but it licensed publication of a paperback edition of Four Hundred Billion Stars to Orbit. The RRP of that paperback, published in 1990, was £3.50. Gollancz reissued the title in paperback in 2009 at a RRP of £7.99, an increase that’s slightly greater than the increase in the retail price index. Still, you can buy a copy at the discounted price of £5.56, roughly the same as the adjusted-for-inflation price of the 1990 paperback.

So, books are already a good deal. Especially if you consider that newspapers have more than tripled in price over the same period. The only way ebooks can really make a big difference to readers’ pockets is if the price at publication is the same or less than the price of the mass-market paperback. That’s what Amazon wants; to get rid of the pricing structure that allows publishers to charge a bit more (but much less than they used to charge) to readers who want to get hold of a title when it first comes out. And that will cut into publisher’s margins, which means that books will have to be produced more cheaply, and most authors will have to take big cuts in payment. Boo-hoo, you might say. Why don’t they do it for free? For, you know, the love of writing. Simple. Authors want to write the best book they can. They can only do that if they have the time and space to do it properly. And the simplest way of ensuring they get that, at the moment, is if their books are sold for what they’re worth, not as content-bait. And if you’re not convinced by that, remember this, dear reader: you get what you pay for.

*the current publishing model is probably going to collapse anyway, but hopefully it's going to collapse slowly, and into a new and useful form, rather than rubble.

EDIT 02/02/10: this is also worth reading.

Currently reading: Hitler's Private Library, by Timothy W. Ryback (and yes, I'm fully aware of the irony of linking to Amazon, but it helps to pay for the blog).
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