My latest story in Analog hit the stands this month. "The Last Romantic on the Belliponte" is a tale of a rattled crew, each member bringing their own ghosts and superstitions to a tense mission in the Oort Cloud. While trying to acquire data from an extrasolar object, is one crew member losing it—or will madness save them all?
Whenever I post about a story in Analog, I get more attention than usual—but it’s a funny sort of attention. Clarkesworld, where I’ve also been fortunate to publish multiple times, is a prominent publication in contemporary SFF, but Analog is a more easily recognized name well outside active genre readers and… let’s say “integrated” writers. And that’s why things get strange.
The very first time I sold an SF story, I shared the news via a public LiveJournal post, and received a scornful comment from a random, telling me that my publication didn’t count because Lightspeed wasn’t even a print magazine (and also, because my alien species was stupid; the internet’s a nice place, eh?).
But the first time I sold a story to Analog, I got randoms messaging me to congratulate me and ask me to help them get published, too. This was my first encounter with a type of person who’d also show up in the writing circles I tried to co-ordinate, back in my old life in Canada: people who were excited to be around me because I’d had some success, but now felt it was unfair that I wanted more when they hadn’t had any of their own. It was as if my only job in life now was to give them a leg up.
In all the years since—and despite so many changes to our industry—each time an Analog story announcement happens, like clockwork I have someone come out of the woodwork praising me for the sale, then leaping to an expression of envy of me for having made the sale at all when they’d never been picked, followed by sharing a story about their own attempts to get in, and some sort of request for insight or contacts or revision to help their own work succeed in the slush pile.
My favourite example of this came after my second story, when someone expressed shock to discover that I’d been accepted multiple times, then told me that he had a lot of brilliant sci-fi concepts, way better than anything that had ever been published in Analog. Cool, right? What an exciting world we live in, with all these storytelling geniuses wandering around. Except… he’d never gotten around to writing any of them down, and he didn’t want to tell me about any of them because he was worried I’d steal them. But maybe I could put him in contact with the editor of Analog?
Again, this has never happened with Clarkesworld stories, or Lightspeed, or even my first story in Fantasy & Science Fiction last year, after over a decade of submissions attempts across three editors. But Analog seems like “the real deal” to some when they think of sci-fi. Analog feels to many like “making it”.
And when these reactions happen?
I’m never more acutely aware of how much of a farce “making it” has always been.
The fragility of publishing
Writing is an industry filled with vague and inaccurate impressions of what it means to “arrive”. For one, most people inaccurately believe there to be money in writing. There hasn’t been much money in writing for decades. It’s a form of playing the lottery that we get pleasure out of because there’s an element of craft to the crap-shoot of industry success. Yes, we might win “scratch ticket” cash: just enough to keep the high going, and to deepen our confidence that we’re on the right track while refining our skills. And we’ll probably make some wonderful friends along the way—maybe even move a few people with your words. Who needs a bingo hall when one can gather for a writing workshop among friends?
This isn’t to disparage writing at all. It’s to highlight that writing is often misleadingly set upon a pedestal, which only exacerbates participant disappointment: when someone doesn’t get the sale; when they don’t find the agent; when they don’t sell their book to a major; when the book sold to a major gets panned; when the book sold to a major doesn’t get panned but the next one does; and so on, and so forth, wherever one’s career gets stopped up short by the industry’s shifting tide.
For many years, when folks heard that I write, they’d leap to asking me where they could find my novels. How awkward to have to amend, “Oh, no, I’ve only published short stories.” But why? Why didn’t I have an agent yet? Why wasn’t I trying to get a novel published? Shouldn’t that be my next move?
And how painful when, for two years after landing the coveted stepping stone of a wonderful agent with my second novel, I’d have to explain that we were receiving nothing but rejections from the majors. How could that be? (Uh…) What was wrong with the piece? (Uh……) Had I forgotten to write a work accessible to the masses? (Uh………)Was I sure I had a good agent? (Yes!)
And even now that I’m indie-publishing my novels, as part of a hybrid industry model that also has me working on another novel for my agent to take to market, people only really want to know two things: how many books have you sold, and where can I read reviews of the work? It’s been difficult to explain that indie work tends not to sell right away, and that it rarely gets reviewed. People aren’t very good at hiding their reactions to my answers: If it isn’t selling and it’s not getting reviewed, it must not be very good. But that’s not ever necessarily the case—with indie books, or with traditionally published books not prioritized by the presses that bought them in the first place. Press marketing is everything, and I am a team of one on a budget of almost nothing.
I have also significantly downshifted my expectations.
As much as I stand by my upcoming novel, Children of Doro, my “Dostoevsky in space” inspired by The Brothers Karamazov and wrestling with the deepest human questions, I highly doubt it’s going to be considered for any awards, or end up on any year-end lists.
I will be thankful if it’s read—and it might be, now that NetGalley has accepted the book into its review program. NetGalley is the most reputable reviewer program in my industry—and very expensive, to boot. With the help of an indie-author support program offered by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA), I’ll have a listing up on May 1, for anyone with an account to shoot for one of the copies there.
Otherwise? Honestly, even for all that I’ve been talking about Children of Doro, I haven’t received more than a single pre-order. No, really: Of the two sales I made this month, one was for Then Raise the Dead Man High, and one was for Children of Doro. And this is during my promotions phase, when I’ve been spending money on ad campaigns, as well as posting frequently about the book and receiving lots of “likes” for doing so. (Granted, it does not help that Amazon won’t let indie authors set up pre-orders for hard copy books, so maybe folks are all just waiting to support my paperback?) After the book comes out in May, if no one nibbles on NetGalley and other review platforms, it’ll surely slip beneath the waters. That’s… the business, baby.
But I’m hardly alone in this experience.
Yesterday, a cheerful little report came out of The Bookseller, shocking no one deep in this industry: “Bookseller survey finds debut authors struggle with lack of support”. The piece opens with the grim stat that 54% of self-reporting authors responding to the survey said that the process of publishing their debut novel negatively affected their mental health. Only 22% of 108 respondents had a positive experience.
And yet… pay attention to the details here. For one, this was a self-reported survey with only 108 respondents: not a very big or informative sample. For another, 47% of that 54% (so, around 27 of the 108) were independently published: a term that seems to have been contrasted with the “Big Four” when a better breakdown should have been “indie”, “small press”, and “Big 4/5 publisher”.
This doesn’t dismiss their experience—and indeed, the article was shared widely yesterday, among other writers commiserating with the reported negativity. But it does offer important context, especially around expectations for indie publishing. As The Bookseller reported:
One respondent noted: “I’ve been exhausted and anxious since about two months before publication until now, about a year on. I have developed quite severe anxiety, for which I am now taking medication." Another respondent, published by one of the Big Four, said: “It has taken me a long time to reconcile the train wreck of my debut. I had to work hard to recover from it, both professionally and mentally.”
And I get it. I do. I’m in that first group, myself. I’ve been a neurotic mess around Children of Doro, which is kind of amusing because the book is narrated by a ship’s AI who keeps insisting they are not having the AI equivalent of a mental breakdown the entire time, thank-you-very-much. (And I 100% am.) Just last night, I found a single-letter typo in the version I’d thought I’d put to bed this weekend, so now I’m trying to keep myself from obsessively rereading the text for the umpteenth time when I really need to be finishing another project for April 30 instead.
(I’ve scheduled April 27 for my day to go obsessively through the text one… last… time…, ahead of the final NetGalley revisions date of April 28, for a May 1 campaign launch, which gives me today and tomorrow to do my other fiction work.)
But why am I such a mess? Why are others who publish, whether via indie models or through traditional presses?
Because the expectations are too darned high.
If you indie publish, you have to get everything right on your own, as I noted in another newsletter:
But even if you’re trad-published, there are huge expectations on you to do everything you can to help the press make your book a success under the promotions strategy it’s chosen—so you both have and do not have agency in the promotions process, which can lead to a very muddy sense of it still all being your fault if the campaign doesn’t work, and the book doesn’t sell.
Room for disappointment in oneself, in other words, is very high in publishing. Room for disillusionment with the industry is, too.
AI and the industry
And of course, to make matters worse, the industry itself often runs on absurdities.
We knew it was coming, of course. The first book to be mainstream, trad-published that was based… on text generated by a Large Language Model (LLM), colloquially known as “AI”. Andy Stanton is a children’s author known for his Mr Gum series, out of Egmont Books. His adult debut is titled Benny the Blue Whale: A ChatGPT Fantasy in Chaos. It sold to Oneworld, a British independent publisher with such formidable literary and nonfiction names as Sean M. Carroll (theoretical physics), Jared Diamond (pop science), A. C. Grayling (humanism), Marlon James (Booker-Prize-winning historical fantasy), and Jane Urquhart (CanLit).
Benny the Blue Whale is the story of a blue whale with a tiny penis, as per Stanton’s original prompt.
ChatGPT provided the back-matter:
Introducing ‘Benny the Blue Whale’—a hilarious and heartwarming tale of adventure, friendship and self-discovery. Benny may be small in size but he’s big in heart as he navigates the challenges of life as a blue whale with a tiny penis. Join Benny and his eclectic group of friends, including a sentient piece of sushi, a barmaid with a heart of gold, and a giant crab judge, as they journey through the Kingdom of Fantasy in Chaos in search of acceptance, love and purpose.
Ostensibly, Stanton built more of the story from there. As human book promo reads:
Diving gleefully into the conversation, Andy invites ChatGPT to co-write a novel with him. From a simple initial prompt, man and machine find themselves dancing a bizarre cross-species tango as together they build an increasingly hallucinogenic yarn around a benevolent blue whale and his underwater world. Sometimes the AI wants to play along, sometimes it doesn’t. It all adds to the mix.
This leviathan improvisation raises all sorts of fascinating questions about language, creativity and how we understand stories. Andy interrogates these themes in his extensive and discursive annotations to the text to deliver an ‘exploded diagram’ of a novel that examines the DNA of narrative itself.
The book is scheduled for publication on November 2, 2023.
I’ll say nothing more about the plot: only that the existence of this book has added to a lot of writers’ despondency this past week, the same as many writers feel when they see announcements of yet another reboot or series expansion of an older literary title when so very many good and interesting books have yet to be adapted at all.
In a Season 3 episode of Barry, a major character’s streaming show gets cancelled just hours after it receives rave reviews, and the producers tell her this is because “the algorithm” determined that the show, which had barely launched, had failed to land with sufficient “taste clusters”. When the character protests that people were crying at the premiere, the arbiter of all things streaming readily agrees:
“I know, and I was one of them. But, I guess I was wrong.”
There’s nothing new about this situation, mind you. Just the other day, I revisited an SF story by Robert Sheckley in the 1950s, “Watchbird” (1953), and chuckled ruefully over fears of technology replacing humans 70 years ago, too:
Except that we’re not really being “replaced” by machines—and that’s the danger of a news story like the one about Benny the Blue Whale selling to a formal publisher. It strips us of all agency in the process, when really it’s very much humans making these choices every step of the way.
What’s really happening to many writers—just as it’s happening to folks in other fields—is that we’re undergoing an industry squeeze in an unstable broader economy.
And a great place to see how that’s playing out right now is, in fact, in TV and film.
The writers’ strike
The Writers Guild of America has agreed to go on strike when their contracts end on May 1, with almost 80 percent of WGA membership voting at a whopping 97.85 authorization to strike. And yes, this stands to greatly hinder your TV and film viewing a few months down the line.
A “veteran television writer” sat down recently with WSWS news to explain the reasons for strike you probably didn’t hear in mainstream coverage, which tended to focus on the lack of residuals for writers: a bad enough situation, in which today’s series and film writers could no longer expect to make long term royalties because streaming services would rather take down old shows than risk continuing to pay out—but not the worst part of the situation for TV and film writers.
As the WGA member explains:
What’s happened in the last decade is that the streamers in particular (Netflix, Amazon, Apple, etc.), which come from Silicon Valley, have a different culture. Their point of view is: move fast and break things.
Television writing, both drama and comedy, are traditionally team sports. You get 8-10 writers in a room and you work out a season of television—both the overall shape of the season, and the individual episodes. Then one writer takes responsibility for an episode, for writing it and seeing it through production, and often even post-production. That’s the traditional model in US television. It’s a labor-intensive process, and a season of television was the better part of a year’s work.
But the companies and their lawyers apparently thought to themselves: why are we spending all this money on writers? Let’s do proof of concept first. Let’s put together a small group of writers (as few as three or four) for a shorter period of time—as little as a month—and call it a “mini-room.” Pay them Writers Guild minimum every week. So everybody in this room, from staff writers to executive producers, is paid the same while working to lay out what the season could be. Then from there, the network or platform will either green-light a full writers room, or pull the plug.
But when you go into this mini-room and commit to this time, you don’t have any guarantee that if the show does go ahead, you’re going to be on the show, because those kinds of commitments are part of the “old model.”
The companies are saying: we’re not going to do that anymore; we’re not committing to you. We’re not promising you anything. We’re just saying, come in, we’ll pay you like piece workers, give us your best ideas and then get the hell out. Maybe you’re lucky enough to come back. Maybe you’re not. So, you may have helped create the template for a successful, long-running series, but you’ll never be paid another dime for your work.
The article goes on to highlight that this kind of career-cutting first hit the material production teams; it’s just been “working its way up the food-chain” ever since.
The same is very much true for book and story writers. We’re one part of a much larger industry of human moving parts, and even though editors and publishers like Neil Clarke at Clarkesworld have been sounding the alarm for years about the fragility of magazine and press business models in an online environment where everyone wants free content, but writers also want to get paid, not enough has really been done to reckon with this infrastructural crisis. A few companies have been able to grow under monopoly, and very few others have been able to build sustainably enough to match the rising tide of writers keen to be published (if not readers keen to be reading them).
Do we ever really give a hoot until it affects our personal bottom line?
Amazon is still shuttering its subscription program this year, which will knock out huge income streams for many industry ventures, further destabilizing the fragile world of SFF magazine publishing. Analog and Clarkesworld will survive; not every publication will continue, though, in its current form or at all.
Still, writers will continue to publish—independently, or through small presses, or through the majors. Whatever they can attain.
And they will bring their big dreams of “making it”—and everyone else’s pressure for them to “make it”, to uphold a broader myth of meritocracy—to the whole messy, grinding, demoralizing process of publishing, indie- or otherwise.
And there will be further disappointments along the way.
Along with plenty latching on to the few who do “make it” in the eyes of others—to ask or demand that those few help them up now, too.
What’s broken in these systems, though, is broken everywhere. Until we build a society that can offer healthier and more equitable approaches to cultivating purpose and belonging, this will be the way of all our creative worlds.
Change starts with us, though. It has to. Right here, at home, in our own noggins—with transformed expectations for the industries in which we’ve chosen to abide.
Choose wisely—for your own sanity, if nothing else.
Be well, be kind, and seek justice where you can.
P.S. This past weekend, OnlySky announced a change of ownership. The site now belongs to American Atheists, a non-profit, and the two are working out the shape and focus of the site going forward. Personally, I think this is a promising move, especially if we adopt a civic advocacy mission under a non-profit umbrella ourselves. I’ve never been a fan of the clickbait model of mainstream news, and though I “yes, and”-ed the heck out of all asks of me during the site’s first year in operation, I definitely felt the challenge of trying to advance more nuanced humanist content amid the struggle of a new venture trying to make sweet, sweet inroads with Google rankings: the “success algorithm” for this form of publishing, too.
I’m one of a few writers you’ll continue to see on the site during the transition, and I sorely hope the work I do there will help to transform the platform into something that more people can build upon sustainably in the years ahead. My latest piece, on the paramilitarization of war through the Wagner Group’s presence in Sudan, is one such reminder of the work that global humanist thinking can yield.
P.P.S. And please enjoy my latest BookTube! I’m getting the hang of these, and the audio quality is much improved. This piece is on histories of speculative fiction, in contrast to more commercial recent SF. (It’s going to drive me nuts that, mid-recording, I blanked on the name Lucian of Samosata, but now you know who I’m referring to at one point.) I’ll have another one on Star Trek influences in Children of Doro up later this week, and one on other sci-fi and fantasy novels inspired by classic lit and philosophy soon after. Please subscribe if so inclined!
I'm one of those holding out for the paperback. While I have the ARC, in the long-term, I do prefer the material copy - and not just for the soppy reason of having your works on my shelf!
This post as a whole has left me with a lot to think about. It's easy to lose sight of this perspective on the industry as a reader because we usually only see the shiny PR and not the labour behind it. That amount of work is perhaps one thing that has kept me from pursuing writing, or at least imagining publishing it one day. It feels like every creative endeavour must be monetized just for the sake of survival, and that sucks the joy out of it. (Oop, I'm in a glum mood, sorry. But I don't see a way to make such a big, messed up system change. Even the upsets seen by the big publishers lately haven't seemed to have an effect. Perhaps it's too optimistic to hope that the writers' strike will make a difference?)
Please don't lose heart! And congratulations for getting a story published in Analog! Novels are a tricky buisiness, and the reading public is a fickle thing. Meanwhile, I'm excited to get into Doro and see what you've done with that fascinating premise.
Thanks so much for this post, there's a lot to chew on here. Especially as I prepare a book for ARC reviews (still waiting on my cover getting done.) I'm not out to be a pessimist but a realist and stuff like this is actually kind of a relief to read, I really appreciate your research/transparency. Indie debut? If I get a couple sales outside my IRL support group, I'll consider it a success. (Going by the PRH/SS trial, over a dozen and we're in the big leagues, ha!) And it's good to know we aren't alone. Sort of a trauma bond. Best of luck!