Bottom of the 4th. Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Revision.

I’m a writer. I’ve been writing on the Internet for about 15 years, and I’ve said a few smart things, and a good number of stupid ones. I “was there” when a number of notorious Internet phenomena happened, and not all have been connected to me. I self-published a card game called Ambition in 2003 that I still get emails about. I’ve had mediocre blog posts get 300,000 hits, and I’ve had great ones get double digits. How? What determines which posts go viral and which don’t? To be honest, if I knew the patterns, then I’d sell said mysteries to people who value attention more than I do; so in full disclosure, I don’t.

I’ve probably pumped 30 million words of writing into the Internet. Good idea? Smart idea? Eh, not so sure. Not all of it has been of high quality. If I do come out with a literary masterpiece one day, I also must accept that stupid Reddit posts from the Bush Administration may also outlive me. It’s an upsetting thought. What if someone, a century from now, took the 100,000 stupidest words of Internet writing that I’ve ever done and made it into a book? Oh, it’d be full of howlers. I’ll probably be cremated, but even that wouldn’t stop me from rolling over in my grave (ash particle by particle) if that nonsense were to live.

For example, I used to get a lot of negative attention related to a bizarre hate page on Wikipedia that asserts I am responsible for some double-digit number of accounts (I shan’t go back and count; it’s not worth it). Some of those Wikipedia accounts never existed. The guy– and I have nothing against him at this point, because he didn’t intend long-lasting damage to my reputation, and because I might be the only person who’d care at this point– just made up accounts and claimed I created them. I did manage to figure out who he is, and what I know about him would discredit him, but I’d be the bad guy if I said more. That whole experience, now 12 years in the past, was just weird. The lesson? Fuck if I know. Stay off the Internet? Did not learn that one. Don’t write? Well… same.

Somehow, I became a successful tech blogger. I got death threats! More than one! At my peak, I was one of the top 10 independent bloggers in the technology industry. Yes, “tech blogger”. Throwing up in your mouth? Good. I am, to think that I once was “a tech blogger”. So, if you’re throwing up, and I’m throwing up, then… we’re “on the same page”. Ugh. I can’t believe I used those words. They came to me and I wrote them. “At the end of the day”, sometimes we “fire off” terrible snot-strings of office-coffee verbiage like we “shoot” emails. Ugh. Fuck this shit; let’s move on.

I burned down my platform in 2016. There are a lot of reasons for this. There are others that I haven’t disclosed. Doesn’t matter here. I decided to start writing fiction. Since I’d managed to get a boatload of attention just my writing here, and for a while I was the most-read non-celebrity contributor on Quora– a sleazy website run by an unethical company that everyone should stay the hell away from, but that’s another topic for some other time… I figured it’d be easy to write “my novel”, eh?

Spoiler: no. Fiction, if you want to write it well, is a much harder game. The standard is much higher.

March – April 2017: I was in between contracts (I had a $250/hour consulting gig, but the ethical ramifications of the work… I’ll just stop there). With the free time, I sat down, then I fucking wrote and wrote and wrote. Eleven days, 134,159 words. At that time, I titled the book Farisa’s Courage. Sent it out for beta reads. Not close relatives, not non-reader friends, but people I knew who read a lot of books and could offer critique. Overwhelming consensus was… it was a Six. Not put that way, not numerically rated, but… publishable, reasonably good, could be a lot better. Not great, not what I wanted. Back to the drawing board.

In truth, I sent that first version out to beta readers too soon (and I thank them, all of them, for having offered useful critique). Well, maybe. Quick feedback is a nice thing, but the book… turned out to need more work than I thought it did. If it was an Eight, I’d only need one round of beta reading, I wouldn’t need to do a complete rewrite, etc.

Something learned: writing 10,000 words per day is totally possible. It’s not even always a bad idea. Sometimes, a great chapter comes out of a 17-hour writing binge. It’s not sustainable to write that way, but it can work for short bursts.

When you revise, however, you need to be well-rested. I did perform a revision pass (after several days at a five-digit pace… whoops) before I sent the first version of the book out for beta reading, but I was naive to think that that was enough. For a blog post, one revision pass suffices and you can do it after you write the last word. For a nonfiction book, perhaps two: one organizational pass, and one line edit. For a novel, if you want to write to a literary standard? You gotta be fucking kidding me. There really is no shortcut. Not only do you need multiple revision passes, but you need time to pass so you can edit with a rested brain.

I once thought that great writers didn’t need to revise heavily. The more accurate assessment seems to be that great writers can revise heavily. I mean, anyone can; but great writers are the ones who can perform six to ten rounds of revision with the work’s quality increasing, whereas an average commercial writer wouldn’t get much utility after a certain point. They both start in the muck, the slush, the first-draft munge; but one group has a bullet’s chance in a butt of the 7th draft being better than the 3rd, while the commercial authors might as well stop at three and send it off for line editing.

 

Like I said, I was between jobs that spring, and I wasn’t satisfied with what I had written, so I spent about 100 hours per week reading books on self-editing, narrative structure, literary criticism, and even the publishing industry. When I needed a break from that, I’d pull out a favorite novel and try to get deeper into what about it worked and what didn’t. That was fun. I wish I got that opportunity more often.

So… I realized how much I had gotten wrong the first time around. Not grammar issues. A copy editor can fix those; a traditional publisher will assign one, and if you self-publish, you must hire one. Mostly, missed opportunities. Places where treasured characters (or loathesome ones) could “come out” more. Late-dropped reveals that were better placed earlier. Conversely, back story given up too soon– you shan’t give back story till you suspect a reader craves it, or because the story would be unreasonable without it. A weak beginning, and a sagging middle-of-the-middle. Opportunities for symbolism and thematic strengthening.

Now it’s November 10th, 2017. I’ve got about 110,000 words written in my rewrite (which uses about a third of the old scenes, though many have been fully rewritten). Surprisingly, while I thought I had nearly mastered prose composition– although I knew I lacked quite a lot about narrative construction and characterization, until about a year ago when a lot of things clicked at once and I started to understand fiction– I realized, after reading several books on line- and copy-editing, that almost everything I wrote last spring can be improved. Massively. So, I must.

I have a spreadsheet of where each segment is my revision process. I also use Scrivener. For me, it’s invaluable. I don’t know how I would organize my revision process without these tools. Not wanting to repeat my mistake of last spring, I don’t send anything to beta readers until the 4th draft. Yep, four. They still find typos and mistakes. I don’t know who said this, but there’s a law I’ve heard that 90% of work exists to counteract other work; that seems right. Revision corrects errors and creates (one hopes, a smaller number of) new ones. Anything newly added in the 4th draft is going to be rough-draft material… you can’t get around the fact that your 4th draft has improvements over the 3rd– otherwise, there’d be no point in doing the 4th– and that those revisions, themselves, live in a first-draft state. So, yeah… it’s humbling (if not a bit disappointing) to realize that even 4th- and 5th-draft material will have an error or few.

The key realization is that Sturgeon’s Law (“90 percent of everything is crap”) applies to everyone. Taste seems to be the key differentiator, and the thing that every writer must refine. The difference between great writers and mediocre ones isn’t an immunity to Sturgeon, but the ability to “de-Sturgeonize” themselves. Not 90, but probably 70 percent of the sentences in my first draft look like something that slithered out of a slush pile– publishable if commercial, but not literary. Second draft? 49 percent. Third draft? 34.3 percent. Fourth draft? 24.01 percent? Who’s happy with “75.99 percent good”? I’m not.

Writing well takes lots of work. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” Camus said.

At any rate, right now my model predicts that my novel will come out to 174,300 words and that I’ll finish on June 19, 2018. I think it’s optimistic by a month. This work includes the total rewrite of last spring’s version, several passes of revision, beta reader feedback, multiple targeted revision passes (e.g. dialogue, mood, diction) and a line edit. I’ll probably do a self copy-edit, in part because I’m likely to get a better quote if I use a professional editor (which, if I self-publish, I will).

Will all of this work be worth it? We’ll see. Perhaps I’ll finish my book and it’ll still be a Six. Obviously, I don’t think that to be the case.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to embrace revision, up to and including the total rewrite; sometimes, you just have to make whole-book, tear-the-world-out-and-put-it-back-together changes. The only sentences and scenes that can’t be touched are the ones you’d remember if your hard drive died and you had no backup. (You should still back up your work; less-than-memorable fourth-draft prose is a much better working material than a year-old outline on a coffee-stained napkin.) Editing is part of the game. And it’s fun. It’s a different kind of fun from pantsing out a 7,800-word battle scene at 2:37 in the morning, but it’s just as worthy an endeavor as the original writing. In the first draft, you get to watch a movie in your insane little mind and write down what happens. In editing, you get to make it look like a real writer rather than an insane person wrote it.

A truth about writing is that excellence comes out intermittently. You can’t force it. You take risks and some of your sentences surprise you on the second read, whereas others make you want to throw your computer at the wall. Jokes are especially volatile; I’d guess that 30 percent survive revision; the other 70 percent served a purpose– paying myself for busting my ass– but don’t belong in the final product. Sometimes, you have to keep driving through the thick and accept that you’ll re-work everything in revision, more than once. Oh, much more than once.

It’s humbling, to realize that with four revision passes, I’m a better writer than I could ever be in one pass. I look at something I’ve worked on several times and I’m like “shit, I don’t know if I could write that again.” In one draft, I couldn’t.

My first draft, as I said, looks like upper-tier slush. My second draft (minus typos and spelling errors that’d come out in a copy edit) is mid-level commercial-quality prose: gets out of the way, with flashes of almost-goodness, but it’s not something I’d be proud of. My third draft starts to look slightly literary-ish; and by drafts four and five and six, I’m starting to have something that, five-and-a-half days out of seven, I wouldn’t mind seeing in print.

Perhaps, after revising and editing and continuing to read books written by experts on what-the-fuck-I’m-trying-to-do, Farisa’s Crossing will only be a Six. Or an Almost-Seven. That would suck, but one doesn’t write without knowing that disappointment is a possibility. Nine-tenths of the blog posts I start, I don’t finish, much less publish. We’ll see. But I’m going to fight hard against the abyss of non-prose, the blank page (the empty string, to a computer scientist) from which anything is possible but nothing emerges without force, as hard as I can.

This ongoing experience– which I am writing this as a break from, because for as much as I enjoy it, I need to do something else sometime– gives me a perspective on a common flamewar within fiction: the topic of “genre fiction”. Ask a bitter creative writing teacher about “genre”, and you’ll hear about how publishers only want to publish “genre trash” and celebrity books– while advances for “real writing” (and real writing, they say, is never self-published, but that’s another misconception in this tangle of buttfail) are low because no one wants to buy literary fiction.

There’s so much wrongness in that complex that I don’t know where to start. First of all, the often-cited claim that genre authors garner huge advances is off the mark. Most genre authors get crappy advances and the same negligent treatment by their publishers that non-bestsellers get in the literary world. If publishers offered $100,000 for every shitty romance novel, supply of shitty romance novels would increase and the price would crater. Second, literary novels often do get major advances and sell well. It’s rare that it happens, because it’s rare in general for any book to get that treatment, and it has more to do with agent clout and auctions than with the quality of the words themselves… but the idea that literary fiction is somehow maltreated is off the mark. Literary authors do get on Oprah and Charlie Rose sometimes. Third, the notion that contemporary neorealism is a superior genre is a bit silly. Its constraints are different, that’s all. When you create your own world, you give up the need to give verisimilitude to that small town in Ohio in 1895; but, in exchange, you have an equally hard job of creating an engaging world that you just made up.

I like literary fiction. If you presented me with a random critically-acclaimed literary novel versus a random self-published epic fantasy novel, I know which one I’d be more likely to pick, and there’s perhaps a bit of irony (although not hypocrisy, since I have no intention of writing an average or “random” book) there, since I’m writing epic fantasy that I’ll probably self-publish. However, I also have to say that the comparison is unfair. Why? Well, because we’re comparing the best contemporary neorealism– the stuff called literary instead of mainstream— against the whole genre of fantasy.

The notion of literary fiction conflates three notions:

  • (P) Fiction in a difficult but beloved (by writers and critics) and often popular genre: contemporary neorealism. No magic, no dragons, no interstellar travel.
  • (Q) Fiction where the prose is polished using an expense of time at least 3 (and often 5-10) times what’s required to make a novel commercially viable.
  • (R) Fiction that does not follow templates that, while often commercially reliable, are sometimes trite: boy-girl romances, murder mysteries, spy thrillers.

If you have P and not-Q, we call that mainstream fiction. If you have P and Q, and the talent to make Q show through, it might be literary fiction. R is a weird turn card here, because a lot of great literary novels have not-R, but generally you need P-and-Q-and-R to be considered fully literary.

If you have not-P, then you’re writing speculative fiction and not literary.

So, what do we call the (not-P)-and-Q writers like me? Well, you can just call me a fantasy author– once I finish the damn thing. Until then, you can use the word “aspiring” and I won’t flame you because I’m busy with, uh, writing. Still, I think the notion that fantasy and science fiction writers can’t be literary is misguided.

As I see it, the distinction that matters most of the ones above is Q. As for R, I think it misses the point. Plots and characters shouldn’t be cliche, predictable, or one-dimensional. Can one write a book of literary quality in a time-worn genre, like a murder mystery or a romance? Of course. There will usually be more to it than the template, just as Farisa’s Crossing is about a lot more than magic, dragons, and steam-era technology. The truth is: every book has a genre. Great books, arguably, tend often to have more than one.

I will say that there is a valid distinction between commercial and literary approaches to writing. Here, literary is divorced from the “literary versus genre” debate, and I’d like to pull out a different word, but I’m at a loss to come up with one that isn’t worse. (Artisanal might work by its original definition, but that word has become so commercialized that I’m going to gag just at the fact that I suggested it.) This distinction tends to be ill-formed in pre-professional writers, who don’t yet know what they want to do with their careers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not going to say that the literary approach is superior from the commercial one. It’s just different.

Once a writer is established enough to sell books with minimal effort– i.e., the years of rejection and the stupid agent querying process are behind him– does he stop revising at “good enough”, or does he push himself into new territory, wanting each book to be the best he can do, and better than the last?

Some people want to write six books per year. Others want to write one great book every six years. How hard is it to write a book? It can quite easy, or it can be astoundingly difficult. The truth is that, once one can write at the minimally publishable commercial standard– which, to its credit, less than 1 percent of adults reach– it’s difficult to make an economic case for writing great novels. It’s not that mediocre novels invariably sell better than great ones. I don’t think that that’s true. I think that literary quality is positively correlated with sales performance. Average readers might not be able to perceive superior prose, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they still respond to it. It has value; just not enough to justify itself on economic terms alone. You do 10 times the work, and you might get a 50-percent bump in your advance.

An author who is optimizing for income, especially if reliable income is the goal, will crank out potboilers, set up a diversified portfolio of work, and eventually have enough exposure and readership that, even if individual books backlist poorly, the total income will suffice. That’s how commercial writing works. What’s wrong with it? Nothing. These books entertain. Then, there are writers who want to play with prose, create memorable characters, play with the form of the novel, and have a shot at being remembered after they die. Some of them pursue contemporary neorealism (the “literary” genre) but not all of them do; I consider them (whether in that literary genre or not) to be literary writers. So, Tolkien and Jordan wrote literary fantasy; Orwell and Huxley wrote literary sci-fi, and I’m writing literary steampunk fantasy (and almost certainly not the first person to do so).

It’s important to note that I make no distinction of one being superior over the other. If I had to rely on writing to get a stable, monthly income, I’d be inclined to spend more time on commercial work than trying to write the Great World Novel. Given that I’ve spent close to 15 years between finance and private-sector technology… let’s just say that I’ve done far, far more distasteful things for money than writing airport books.

I’m writing epic fantasy, to a literary standard, not because I’m better, but largely because it’s what I want to do (and because I believe I can). Could I make a living writing commercial potboilers? Probably. I don’t look down on people who do. What I intend to do with Farisa’s Crossing— the first book epic fantasy series that’ll probably take me 20 years to finish, and that I have no idea whether it will sell– isn’t necessarily better; it’s different.

I’m in excess of 3,000 words, the point at which the revision intensity of an essay (on that topic) seems to increase… and I think I’m done, and time’s scarce. Back to writing.

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Short Story “Puckle” for Release in Dec. 2017

I’m still working on Farisa’s Crossing, but I’d like to get a short story out there as well– in part, to try out the self-publication process, and in part, because I think it’s a neat short. It has nothing to do with Farisa; it’s sci-fi rather than epic fantasy.

The title’s “Puckle”. I’ll be giving away 144 copies for free, and then selling it for 99 cents.

Patent Weight in Publishing

I once worked for a large company that acquired another large company. Why? Patents. The goal was to reach a “mutually assured destruction” state with other software companies that held patents and were fixing to sue. What was in the patents? No one had, or took, time to read them. How would they play out in court? It didn’t matter; most were unenforceable, because most software patents are ludicrous and over-broad, but that was known. The number was what mattered. If all the major software companies hold patents (most of which are unenforceable bullshit patents) in approximately equal number, then they are in a stalemate and no one gets sued.

I bring this up because it’s relevant to the state of the traditional publishing industry. In 2017, many writers find themselves locked in terrible contracts and cannot extricate their rights, even long after their publishers shat the bed and their books went nowhere. The book might be selling three copies per month, but the writer can’t get it back.

As I write Farisa’s Crossing, I’m also thinking about how I’m going to publish it. And the more I learn about traditional publishing, the more I find myself turned off by the entire industry. They dangle a sweet carrot: you too, Unknown Author, could become a Somebody overnight; all you have to do is write your next query letter so well it’s practically made of blowjobs, then get signed by an arm-twisting power agent who can take your book to auction, then get a lead-title deal with a 6-figure advance and have golden-ticket reviews like New York Times delivered six months before your book even launches, and then repeat the process four or five times and get to the point where people get fired if the press doesn’t punch your book. No one thinks the odds are good, but they’re nonzero. It’s that epsilonic nonzero-ness that keeps agents receiving query letters.

And… plenty of authors find themselves so exhausted by agents and queries and the waiting… waiting… waiting… that when things finally snap together (sort of) and the industry coughs up a $5,000 advance and a contract cleverly designed to have the book never go out of print (and, therefore, rights never to revert to author)… enough of them have been beaten down enough to take it, even though they’ve probably realized that the publisher isn’t going to do jack-shit to sell their book.

They ought to hire lawyers. Just as every self-publisher needs to shell out for an editor, just to have a second pair of eyes, you cannot get by in trade publishing without an experienced copyright attorney. Your agent will not do that job. Unless you’re a 6- or 7-figure client, you’re of low priority to your agent– he really just wants to get your deal done as fast as possible, so he can focus more time on his major clients. Yes, I realize that many writers can’t afford to hire lawyers… but if they’re getting $5,000 advances, they can’t afford traditional publishing either and should consider taking up a skilled trade with strong unions.

On snapping up the rights, though… why would the Manhattan brontosaurs do this? What’s their angle? What value is there in rights to a book that they’ve under-published and that therefore died out? Why would they spend $5,000 (it’s still not nothing) to acquire a book they don’t believe in enough to promote it properly? The answer: writers are earnest and careers are long. Writers will keep working, for years, even if the world loses faith in them. Also, there are more ways for writers to reach readers directly: they can now self-publish. If the author’s fifth book ten years from now hits the New York Times Bestseller list in the crotch, it’ll prop up her backlist, and the publisher gets 75 to 94 percent of the revenues.

Those shitty deals are given to writers who seem plausibly talented (and many of them are quite talented, and a few will go on to succeed) by publishers who view the rights as out-of-the-money call options. Most won’t pay off. A few will hit big.

I used to call the bottom-tier trade deals VIT, or Vanity-In-Trade. It’s a catchy acronym, and I’m not ready to give it up, but I don’t think that vanity press is the best metaphor. Vanity presses collect upfront from unsophisticated writers who are unlikely ever to succeed, and that’s not the case with VIT; it only works because some of these authors actually are good and one can predict that some have backlist value. It might not be clear which authors will pop up 15 years from now, but the portfolio has estimable value.

So, patent trolling might be a better analogue. The publishers buy up rights from young writers who think they’re worth next to nothing– and who rely blindly on their agents, even though they’d do better to hire actual lawyers to vet said agents. A decade or two later, when those writers have reputations and careers and they want to do something with their backlist– perhaps edit and republish an old book, or perhaps write a new book using characters and setting from an old one– they get trolled.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch does an excellent job of summarizing these changes in trade publishing. It’s no longer about improving, marketing, and distributing books. It’s about financialization: the acquisition of intellectual property for less than it’s worth. From an expected value perspective, a debut novel written by anyone persistent enough to suffer literary agents’ bullshit (the long waits, the finicky submission guidelines, the aggressive negging that agents deploy in order to get authors to accept bad deals) and land one is probably worth $5,000.

Writers suffer, but so do books. Often these low-advance titles are shipped out with minimal care, because it doesn’t matter to the publisher if the book sells poorly, since it invested so little. The rights are a call option on work the author will do for herself (because publishers, these days, aren’t going to wipe sweat off their balls to publicize a midlist author) in the future.

I wonder, though, if the publishers acquire rights not only for their (perceived) long-term financial value, but in preparation for some kind of IP war. Perhaps it’s the bulk number of copyrights they hold, much less than what is copyrighted, that they care about. I wouldn’t know, because I’m not party to those conversations, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

Farisa’s Crossing Mail Bag

I’ll answer a few questions that have come to my mailbox.

Can I beta read for you?

Yes. I have two slots open right now. They tend to free up as people find themselves unable to keep the time commitment. This is a big book, likely to reach 650-700 pages, and most of the people I know are in tech and don’t have a lot of free time.

The (soft) deadline for the Beta Reader Program, if you want the signed First Editions, is March 3, 2018. The real deadline is: you’ll get more copies, the more you contribute to my ability to improve the book, and I can’t use suggestions that come after I turn in the book.

I’ve been asked how much the Signed First Editions will be worth. I honestly have no idea.

What genre is Farisa’s Crossing?

Farisa’s Crossing is lead-title epic fantasy, the first book of the Antipodes series, in a world with 19th-century technical capability (“steampunk“) and a female protagonist. It’s genre fiction; however, the prose, contemporary relevance, and characterization meet (in fact, exceed) the standards of the literary genre. It’s not an escapist book, and its value isn’t mere entertainment. It has elves, dragons, magic, and even orcs– but I do interesting things with all of those– and much of what I’m writing is 2017-relevant.

Some writers and critics divide books between “literary” and “genre” books, where neorealistic and relatively unplotted work is called literary. By that classification, I’m writing genre. (Neorealism expects writers to work in the contemporary real world. It’s a noble form; it’s just not what I do.) Quite clearly, it’s a fantasy novel.

Others divide novels between “literary” and “commercial” based on the amount of work put into prose, characterization, and relevance. Some authors optimize for revenue and call a book finished when it’s minimally publishable. Others want to write really good books, books that might outlive them, and put in 5-20 times as much effort as it takes to make a minimally publishable book. That’s rarely economical; you don’t make 5-20 times as much money. On that scale, I’m literary (as are, to their credit, quite a large number of genre authors, at least in fantasy and sci-fi).

So, I’m writing literary genre fiction and see no contradiction.

Is Farisa’s Crossing appropriate for all ages?

It’s what Hollywood would call a four-quadrant book: it will appeal to men and women, over and under 25. That said, it’s definitely not a book for kids; there’s a lot of profanity in it. The world it takes place in is as sexist and racist as this one. There’s a lot of violence, because the story takes place during a long war between an overgrown corporation (the Global Company) and the rest of the world.

I’d rate the book as 14+. It’s no worse than Game of Thrones. But, I’m also quite liberal. Not much bothers me, and I was 14 a long time ago, so take that with a huge grain of salt.

When will it come out?

Well, that’s complicated.

In March 2018, I’ll begin querying. I have wealthy, presumably connected, friends who may be able to get me a timely read– it’s not fair, but the game is the game– from the small pool of agents who can snap together legitimate, lead-title deals.

That doesn’t guarantee anything– there are plenty of reasons why a great book can get a mediocre deal or none at all, and I won’t get into them here. I’ll probably know by late summer how that’s turning out.

If I self-publish, the book should be ready by October 1, 2018. That includes time to hire a professional editor, which I’ll do (though qualified to edit) for the same reason that lawyers hire lawyers and doctors don’t do their own surgery.

On the other hand, if I use traditional (or “trade”) publishing, there’s almost no chance of the book getting out by that date. (Sorry!) Trade publishing takes a long time and there are good reasons for at least some of the delays. Bookstores order months in advance, and the publicity plans that publishers set for their top books can take a full year to implement. If (and, to be frank, probably only if) you get a lead title deal, the delay is acceptable. In fact, in that case, it’s quite worth what you get: reviews in major newspapers, TV and radio interviews, front-table placement in bookstores. A lead title gets an actual launch, as opposed to the “here’s a plank and a paddle” treatment that most books get.

If I get a substantial trade deal, the date won’t be within my control, but will probably be in 2019 or 2020. I don’t love making readers wait, but the difference between 10,000 copies and 1,000,000 is worth it.

There’s another advantage to trade publishing. To be blunt, I’ve made some enemies during my time in Silicon Valley. There’s a low but nonzero risk of frivolous lawsuits and bad-review brigades. (Y Combinator has been sending me fraudulent beta reader interest about once per month; they’re afraid I might write about them.) If it’s only my own muscle in that fight, I’ll still go to it, but I have considerations that other people don’t have, and that also makes top-tier trade deals.

In the above regard, a lead-title trade deal brings more protection than one has if one self-publishes. You have full-time people who will call newspapers and (if necessary) rip people out in order to defend your author brand and reputation. However, the standard-issue trade deal does not come with that… regular trade-publishing deals, in fiction, are largely for people too lazy to self-publish.

To be honest, I’d put my odds of getting a lead-title deal in the 25% range. That’s much higher than the chances I’d give an average first-time author, but it’s still not “good”. That’s still 3-to-1 against.

Why are you likely to self-publish the book, then?

For one thing, I plan on writing the series to completion. This is not “a standalone book with series potential”. Fuck that shit; I’m actually planning to write the series.

In 2017, the standard-issue trade deal makes it difficult to extricate a series if the publisher dumps it, which can happen for any reason or no reason and is not always connected to the quality of the book.

I’ll have to demand certain contractual terms to protect the series– dammit, I am going to write this thing– such as automatic reversion of rights if future books in the series are turned down, or if sales drop below certain targets. Those terms are not usually afforded to four- and five-figure authors.

Why do publishers hold on to books even if sales dwindle? A backlist book selling five e-copies per year is not exactly a major financial asset, but it’s still a call option on the writer’s future performance– it might perk up if that author has future success– and publishers are loathe to give that up.

Am I writing lead-title quality work? Absolutely. However, there are plenty of excellent writers who get terrible deals. Literary quality is only loosely correlated with the strength of the book deal, and sales have more to do with the quality of the deal than the book. (Trade published books are judged on their short-term sales performance, which is largely under the control of the publishers. Book sales will converge to quality– we don’t read Melville and Whitman because Manhattan is shoving them down our throats– over time, but that happens over decades… not in the first 8 weeks.) It’s common for great writers to get tens or hundreds of rejections before anyone sees what they’re really doing. It’s likewise common for great writers to get shitty deals because their publishers or agents assume they’re tired of rejection and will be easy to close.

If things play out for me in the way I desire, it won’t be because I’m better than the writers who got tens of rejections, followed by shitty deals– just luckier.

In fiction, we’re going to see self-publishing triumph. (Trade publishing will still be around, especially in nonfiction where its fact-checking and platform-making services are invaluable; in fiction, it’ll be lead titles and people too lazy to self-publish.) There aren’t enough lead title slots for every novel of merit, and there are plenty of midlist books of high quality that are better served by a freer author (who can, say, give away 100,000 copies without asking permission) than by barely-exerted Manhattan muscle. A deal with a $5,000 advance and no publicity isn’t worth cutting your e-book royalties from 70 percent to 25, losing your ability to offer discounts or give copies away, or worrying about what happens to your series if your editor leaves the firm and your publisher dumps it.

Most importantly, though, the definitions of success in trade publishing and self-publishing are different, and the latter world’s conception of it is more highly correlated with literary quality. In the long run, that’s what’ll kill trade publishing’s prestige in fiction: the fact that one is a short-term game and the other takes a long focus. Word-of-mouth for a book can grow exponentially, but it’s a slow exponential curve, because reading (much less digesting what one has read, in order to critique it) takes time.

Trade publishing judges a book based on its first 8 weeks. That’s not enough time for the slow-exponential influence of readers’ word of mouth to make quality win out over early promotion. The winners in trade publishing are picked in advance– that’s why you want a lead-title deal. Manhattan horse trading and sausage making– a network of “my guy gets reviewed or the next call is from my boss to your boss” conversations– determines a book’s early success. Publishers know in advance which books will be bestsellers. They pick those before the readers get a say. And if they’ve doomed a book with a small print run and shoddy promotion, readers who want to buy it will go to bookstores, see that it’s not there, and forget about it. Then it will die.

What’s a bestseller? In general, a book that sells 10,000 copies in a week will make the list. Of course, a book can sell 10,000 copies in its first week but barely break 30,000 for the year, and then fade into oblivion.

On the other hand, a book that sells 100 copies per day, every day for several years, will never get near the bestseller list. What’s more of a success, though: a book that sells 40,000 copies due to Manhattan muscle, but flames out because it sucks, or a book that sells 100 copies per day for 25 years? Personally, I’d rather write the latter.

In trade publishing, a bad opening week kills your book and possibly your career. Bookstores don’t re-order, your publisher kills the series (but won’t return the rights) and your agent stops returning your calls. There are a number of ways that can happen, and most aren’t the authors fault. If you self-publish, you’re almost certainly going to have a slow opening week… and opening month… and opening year… because slow exponentials are flat for a long time… but if you’re playing for the long term, that might be okay.

Why are you writing this book (/series)?

I have an answer, but it would spoil the ending of the book and possibly the series.

I’m putting in 10+ times as much effort as a minimally publishable book requires so there’s obviously a message. However, even I have a hard time knowing exactly what I’m writing to communicate. I’ll probably be best equipped to answer that… 10 years after I’ve finished the series. So let’s talk in the mid-2040s.

Are you writing low or high fantasy?

Neither. Both. I know what those terms mean, but it’s hard to say.

It’s like “highbrow” and “lowbrow”. I do both. My ending, I’m pretty sure, will change the way some people think about religion, philosophy, life and death. In the same book, I have… a taint fire… which isn’t exactly highbrow.

J. R. R. Tolkien opened up the high fantasy genre, proving it could do more than the sword-and-sorcery (as they’d be called today) potboilers that, until his work, many assumed fantasy novels to be. He neither invented the epic nor fantasy, but he validated that epic fantasy could work in modern writing.

George R. R. Martin’s achievement (although, in later books, his execution seems to have suffered from his stardom) is to establish that low fantasy– with an ensemble cast of mostly loathsome people, a convincing world backed by copious research of this one, frank language, and a magic system that is mostly repulsive– can be epic as well. (This assumes he completes the series.)

Tolkien gives a clear moral topography. Elves good, orcs bad. Rivendell good, Mordor bad. There’s nothing wrong with that. He paints a world that people would actually want to live in.

Martin, for a contrast, drops you into nihilistic relativism and realistic tedium: people are mostly selfish to the point of being forgettable, travel is just as boring and miserable as medieval travel actually was, and it’s hard to know if one’s doing the right thing and most people don’t even fucking care. There’s also nothing wrong with writing that. It resembles the real world quite well.

What am I doing? I’m aiming for the middle. The world is closer to Martin’s than Tolkien’s. But, I enable virtuous characters to exist (and not be boring or hard to believe). Farisa isn’t just another selfish bag of meat, entrails and electricity; I believe that she will make the reader (at least, some readers) care about her fight. She isn’t overbearingly religious (I won’t share her religious leanings, because that’s a plot point) but she’s anti-nihilistic.

The world of Farisa’s Crossing (and, more generally, the Antipodes) is a dark one. The Global Company has won its war of conquest, and Farisa’s born into the aftermath. While the Globbos aren’t putting ethnic minorities into camps yet, just as the global corporate elites aren’t doing so (yet), it’s clear that the world is headed for more ugliness and more danger. Slavery and murder and rape all exist in the world of the Antipodes, because those things actually happen. Dystopia has actually happened in the real world, and will probably happen again. It’s not unrealistic. Yet, I write to give cause for hope. The Global Company might fall! Farisa might be cured of her dreadful illness! I won’t spoil what actually happens, and I haven’t plotted out the series in depth, but I’ve made a world in which it could happen.

I don’t love George R. R. Martin’s nihilistic, power-obsessed, sex-and-food world that, to be honest, has me on #TeamWhiteWalker. He writes it very well. It’s just not what I’m trying to do. I want my story to take place in a world where hope exists.

On the other hand, I have a hard time writing a world where most powerful humans aren’t garbage, because the actual world we see is… one where shit floats. To write a relevant series, I have to deal with that… and then try to write a convincing character who’ll do the right thing, and fight for the good, anyway.

Your main character is too diverse! Brown, female, disabled and (spoiler)!

Yes, this is an objection that someone (not a beta reader) raised, especially since I’m a white male with only a mild disability.

Farisa’s dark-skinned because she comes from the south (41 degrees north latitude, on a hotter and brighter planet). It’s not “too diverse” for her to be brown. Everyone’s brown. I mean, by convention we call light-brown people like me “white” and we call dark-brown people “black”, but… last I checked, everyone’s brown.

She’s female because the story (which has been building in my mind for a decade) became a hundred times better when I switched to a female perspective. Her disability (the Blue Marquessa) comes from her magic. As for the last item, that makes sense too, if you get to the core of who she is. That wasn’t my intention when I created her– in fact, I spent some time writing a character who’d support the opposite– but the more I wrote, the more I realized that it was right.

(Mild spoiler.) I’m put off by the Global Company chapters. Aren’t they Nazis? I find your portrayal too light and your characters too sympathetic.

Yes, the Global Company is fucking evil, and the paths it pursues will remind readers of terrible chapters in this world’s history.

On an individual level, though, the Global Company employees and soldats– known in the book as “Globbos”– aren’t all evil. Many are just stupid. Office pranks and incompetence, rather than steaming cosmic malevolence, run the day for them. There are people there who avoid work at all costs, people who can’t stand the sight of blood, and people who have more enthusiasm for office politics than destroying the world. (Of course, very few real-world villains think they’re destroying it.) It doesn’t make the Global Company less of a threat. It makes it fucking terrifying.

One this-world-relevant message of the Global Company is that, yes, corporate capitalism is a joke and more often damaging through incompetence than malice. The typical corporate worker’s daily life is TPS reports and bake-off drama, not environmental or cultural degradation.

See, there’s an important lesson about global corporatism: in spite of its phlegmatic ineffectiveness, it’s still fucking dangerous. Case in point: 2016. A self-indulgent billionaire runs for the highest public office? A joke! No chance in hell! Oh, wait. In 2017, the worst people in our country marched in Charlottesville, with Tiki torches, shouting “Jews will not replace us”. Tiki torches! Was that a joke? It’s hard to take such people seriously– most of those illiterate lardfuckers aren’t in anything close to fighting shape– but real-world evil has a tendency to look like a complete fucking joke… up until the point where it wins.

If you were a mid-ranking Nazi in 1923, you probably thought of the loudmouth with the mustache as a harmless clown who’d pump the message, but later be pulled aside. If you were a cubicle drone in the mid-1990s (before open-plan offices won out, and cubes became luxurious) you’d find it absurd that corporate surveillance, psychopathic greed, and ill-managed technical prosperity might one day pose a threat to the American middle class, because your image of a corporate executive was closer to Michael Scott than Patrick Bateman. So, I portray Hampus Bell (Chief Patriarch and Seraph of Capital at the Global Company) accordingly, as a bit of a lightweight, because that’s how the people in his milieu see him.

Do you really have Y Combinator people in your book?

Short answer: not really. If nothing else, it’s set in a different time on a different planet.

In drafting, I have used placeholder names inspired by real-world bad actors from my checkered corporate career, but I change them in revision if the characters (even if villainous) become important– not because I’m afraid, but because I don’t want to make insignificant assholes significant.

The standard disclaimer about fictional characters (“purely coincidental”) is bullshit. But, bad writers borrow and good writers steal. Bad writers mimic and hesitate; good writers synthesize and expand. Each character is, by the time I’m done with her, a combination of several real-life people (including, even for the villains, myself). Usually, as I flesh out characters, I improve on the placeholder names.

I enjoy the fact that rich venture capitalists are sweating my book, but they don’t need to. They’ll be fine, really. They’ll still be rich, and I’ll still be… not, at least for a while. I use Pullgrim, Gackhole, and Cuckite for trolls’ names. They aren’t major characters; they’re minor characters in a story-within-a-story that gets less than a paragraph. That’s about as much literary immortality as those assholes are going to get from me.

The Global Company, also, isn’t based on a this-world company. Not Y Combinator, not Google. With 70 percent of the world’s economy under its roof, the Global Company not even capitalistic, not any more than 1984‘s IngSoc is socialistic. Rather, the Global Company is based on our present day’s terrifying trend toward corporate consolidation and belligerent plutocracy.

Something one learns, when studying authoritarianism, is that capitalism and socialism are similar (and approach indistinguishability) when they degenerate. In the US, we are beyond the point of fair capitalism, and small-business formation (as well as large-company and governmental investment in innovation) has been collapsing for years.

How many books do you intend to write? And when?

I expect the Antipodes series to take at least seven books, and not more than twelve. There’s a structure I have in mind for the series and its central cast, but I can’t discuss more without spoiling what happens in the first book. I expect the total to run between 1.5 and 3 million words.

If I continue to work full time, I expect to produce a book about every 2-3 years. That should be the expectation. For one thing, the likelihood of a 6- (much less 7-) figure outcome on a first book is low. For another, even if I were to get never-have-to-work-again rich, I’m not sure that I’d quit technology altogether. Maybe I’d go back to grad school (I’d be able to afford it) and get a PhD in CS, to get a deep knowledge of AI– real AI, not bullshit corporate “data science”– but I doubt I’d just quit the field. Then again, who knows? I’m 34; I’m not far from the field quitting me… even though I continue to get smarter each year.

I expect to have the Antipodes series wrapped up in the mid-2030s, but we’ll see. That assumes that the tech industry (and I have many enemies) doesn’t kill me before then.

What Happened (Oct. 17, 2017 Edition)

I was a big-name tech blogger who, one day in February 2016, just up-and-quit. From 4000 views per day, I went to zero.

Well, I didn’t plan it exactly that way. There are more details, and they’ll come.

To be frank, I’m burned out on trying to fix the tech industry. I no longer care to evangelize open allocation or Haskell. Why? Times change, people change, I’ve gotten older, bad faith fades and good faiths are born. Haskell is still an excellent language, and open allocation is still better than closed allocation, but… quite honestly, at 34 years old I’ve used up about 45 percent of my life, and I’m not keen on trying (and failing) to protect an industry from its own worst (and entrenched, powerful) elements. I am much smarter than the people calling important shots in the tech industry– that’s just an objective fact, and I’m too old to shy away from it for the sake of social acceptability– but I’ve long since given up on convincing them of it. Technology is rotten because venture capital is rotten, and that’s rotten because American business culture is rotten, because global business culture is rotten… and we will probably have significant and worldwide social upset before it is fixed. I hope to be far away from the hot fight when that happens. I fought, and I lost. I did my part, I suffered, and I’m done with that shit.

The most important thing to me right now is getting Farisa’s Crossing out on time, and making it the best damn book it can be.

It’s been a few years, so I can give an objective account of some things that have happened. If not maturity, at least I have emotional distance.

I worked at Google in 2011. My manager was so bad that the company apologized for his conduct. Related to the fallout, and probably not Google’s fault, I was placed on (and later removed, but too late) a Silicon Valley unionist blacklist and had significant job search difficulties (for which I’ve collected settlements, but far from enough) due to that.

Being on the “suspected unionist” list put large tech companies out of consideration for some time; I ended up working, in the mid-2010s, for some very unethical companies. At one, I was offered a promotion (to the job title I was promised on hire) if I signed a stack of performance reviews, some of which pertained to people who left before I arrived. When I refused to do so, I was fired. That was just the beginning of the absurdity that that stupid company brought in to my life.

I discovered in the mid-2010s that my account on Hacker News was “moderated” because I wrote a blog post in 2013 that Paul Graham thought was about him (it wasn’t). The result of this moderation was that my comments fell to the bottom of the page, as if they had received no upvotes. When I pointed this out to their moderator, he corrected it, but a Y Combinator “downvote brigade” began hitting my posts soon after they landed.

In August 2015, I was banned from Hacker News on false pretenses. The moderator edited my comment in order to make a misleading account of what happened. Then, in September 2015, I was banned from Quora, also on false pretenses. Y Combinator, which owns Hacker News, is also an investor in Quora.

Among adults, website drama would be a non-issue, but it actually prevented me from getting hired in certain places. Why? Because tech is full of risk-averse pansies with no backbone or character, who shrink from any hint of controversy. Bullshit website drama actually matters in the tech industry. Nowhere else. Techies need to grow the fuck up. I did.

In early 2016, I started receiving death threats. Those weren’t new. In fact, I was attacked by a homeless person who’d been sent by a prominent venture capitalist. That episode was more laughable for the sheer incompetence involved than it was upsetting. It certainly wasn’t frightening. I had, after all, said on the Internet that it might not be the worst thing in the world for Silicon Valley programmers to unionize. I pointed out that the rotten cultures that seem to recur in venture-funded startups might be the fault of the investor themselves. You don’t say things like this and not put yourself at physical risk, because the manchild oligarchy of Sand Hill Road is vindictive. When the death threats started hitting other people close to me, that’s when I shut down. I probably panicked more than I needed to. On February 2, 2016, I intended to revert every blog post to “Draft” (unpublished) status. WordPress did not have this feature, so I moved them to “Trash” with the intention of reviewing and republishing the most valuable ones. However, WordPress deletes posts in “Trash” after a while, and many were lost for good. I’m fine with that. They’re available on the Wayback Machine.

I’ve pulled away from other forms of social media. I nuked my Twitter account. (In part, this was in protest of Trump’s victory and Twitter’s role in it.) I realized that it wasn’t healthy for my mammalian brain to be addicted to social microapprovals. I had a legit trolling addiction in the 2000s; I know how much time can be lost forever in that black hole. Killing all this social media engagement was one of the best things I did. I became able to read books again at normal speeds, without checking my phone. I became a better writer because of the above. My concentration returned.

Of course, now that I’m writing a book, I may need that “author platform” back. We’ll see. I may even go back on Twitter. Tech drama, though? I’m done with it. I know for a fact that I’d get a much larger advance for a tech memoir than for my novel (guaranteed mid-six+ versus I-have-no-idea) but I just don’t want to write about that shit. I don’t fucking care. The tech industry can burn to the ground and I’ll toast marshmallows over the fire.

I suppose I owe the rest of the story. What was I up to between March 2016 and now?

There was a moment when I realized that I’m just Done with so many things. I’ll work for startups, if the terms are good, but I have no delusions about wanting to be a founder. When you become a boss, you can be a force for good, or you can become the worst thing in another person’s life. If you’re the CEO and you create a rotten culture, you can become (indirectly, since they’ll blame the middle managers) the worst thing in 500 peoples’ lives. If you’re the CEO and try to create a good culture… well, you’ll probably not be able to raise VC, and they’ll probably fund your competitors and crush you. No thanks, for any of that. It’s not for me. There’s a reason why Silicon Valley is run by psychopaths and blame goes straight to the top.

About three years ago, I did a bit of consulting for a trucking company that involved performance management software. One of the objectives was to catch city drivers who were eating off-route (costing full cents in gas) in order to eat with their families or get cheaper lunches. When you do that kind of work, you’re basically licking Satan’s taint. It’s full-on Spreadsheet Eichmann shit. When I realized what the job was, I quit and I never billed a cent. See, most software people would write that code. They don’t care that they’re writing employee surveillance tools that ruin lives. Which is why I don’t care if the whole industry collapses in fiery wreckage. It is amoral, it is disgusting, it deserves its own demise. (I also don’t care about the comma splice that just happened, fuck it, have another one.)

What is our main product, in private-sector software engineering? Well, very few of us are curing cancer, or exploring, or even making it easier for authors to bring joy to their readers. No, most of us are helping businessmen unemploy people. Fuck that till it dies.

In April 2016, I applied for a job with the federal government. I was very excited about this opportunity, and more than willing to take a 50% pay cut in order to work on something that actually mattered. I got a conditional job offer; one of those conditions was funding for the position (a research position, one that would likely encourage a return to graduate school, at least part-time). Then Trump happened and there were funding issues, so that didn’t pan out, at least not yet.

I owe Trump a little treatment, since I never publicly commented, at least not here, about how that election affected me. It doesn’t matter. He’s the President now. I’m a patriot; I want what is best for the country, which means that I don’t want him to go down in flames if that’s going to hurt the country as well. I don’t want him to be re-elected, but I don’t want him to fail so bad that it hurts all of us.

I’ll say one thing: I fucking hate the media, even still. Not because “they elected Trump”; that wasn’t their intention. They were just really fucking stupid and got it wrong. I remember all the complaints about “this terrible election cycle” in 2016, which created a false equivalency between (A) an average-plus, smart, liberal politician who (because of our sexist society) got smeared with the sins of her sleazy husband (who still wasn’t a bad president) and (B) a racist, misogynist psychopath who ran against 30+ years of damage done by Boomers, bullies, and businessmen despite being all fucking three. “This demoralizing election.” Yeah, it’s so fucking demoralizing that you have the right and responsibility to choose your leaders, you fucking spoiled shit. Tell that to women in Saudi Arabia, how much you hated having to “hold your nose” and vote for a candidate. Stop creating a false equivalency by blaming “this terrible election season” when the problem wasn’t the above-average politician running an issue-based campaign, but the IRL troll who set everything on fire and sucked up all the oxygen.

What do I want from Trump? I want him to realize that he’s cornered, that he’s probably going to jail without any other exit, and self-pardon. Why? The self-pardon is the perfect solution. He’ll have to resign. The country doesn’t gain anything from an old man spending his last years in jail. But, if he becomes the first President in history to self-pardon, he humiliates the fuck out of plutocracy for the next hundred years. There’s a good thing about Trump; he’s exposing the American business elite for what it is. The Silicon Valley boys are the same as him, but better at hiding it. What do I want? For Trump to poison us against billionaires– to show us the true character of our business elite, so clearly that we fucking learn it this time– so we don’t elect some Silicon Valley asshole who can actually pull fascism off.

That’s my 2016 rant. I wanted to go back to research, possibly get a PhD in computer science, and have a life of purpose rather than chasing dollars. And I still do, and I’m still working toward that. Corporate technology is 97% corporate and 3% technology, and life is too finite for that “corporate” aspect.

What about 2017? Well, we and North Korea haven’t obliterated each other. That’s good.

Something happened in late March 2017 that I’m not ready to talk about, but it was disturbing and I started writing. At first, I was going to do a non-fiction book, Technopathy, which I later renamed Techxicity. It would complete that trinity of 2010s tech tell-alls: Disrupted, Chaos Monkeys… then my book. Yet I got to 30,000 words and had a moment of realization: this book will change nothing. It will get buzz and it will make some ex-managers (names changed but recognizable) look bad and put a massive black eye on the tech industry, but who cares? The tech industry is already a black eye on the country. Do we need a second-order black eye? What would that even look like? A white eye? Wouldn’t that just be “an eye”?

Realizing that I didn’t care enough about the tech industry to go through with Techxicity (or the Silicon Valley novel I attempted) I decided to write the book that I’ve fucking wanted to write for a long time, the one I attempted several times (2013, 2014, 2016) but had never quite “got”, the one where the female mage (Farisa) is the protagonist. It evolved several times in my mind between 2013 and 2016, from a sword-and-sorcery story to something more epic–with literary aspirations, because literary fiction is mostly what I read, and because I’m not afraid to do 10+ editing passes to make the prose and story great. (I don’t do that for blog posts; it’s not economical.) I was between jobs and my wife was out of town. I sat down on March 30 and I started fucking writing. I didn’t finish till April 7, when I had 134,159 words. Apparently, 14,906 words in a day is a lot. (I asked a couple writer friends.) It’s not sustainable; I’ll say that off the bat. It also left me too depleted to edit properly. While the quality of what I sent to first-round beta readers (after one revision pass, which was not enough) was decent, it’s not what it could have been. What I’m sending my second-round betas is much better.

On April 8, I had… a solid first draft. That surprised me. Till that point, I didn’t really think I’d have a novel in me till age 45 or so, but this zero-to-one thing happened and suddenly I had an awesome central character, an intriguing setting, a twisty and interesting plot… and several months of revision (still in progress) to fix errors, amplify themes, remove scenes that went nowhere, and polish language. Ninety percent of the book I’ve rewritten or will rewrite, but that zero-to-one transition was critical in proving to me what I could do. It also gave me motivation to study the novel (the form, not a particular book) in depth, as well as language, because I was now studying something I had done imperfectly rather than something I “might do someday”.

Now, it’s October 17, 2017. My spreadsheet predicts that I’ll be done with Farisa’s Crossing (including beta-reader feedback, multiple revision passes, self-editing and professional editing at the line and copy level) by June 2018.

How am I? I’m doing… okay. Still banned from Quora, which is a good thing I suppose; it liberated time, and once my book is out, I’ll get to sue the fuck out of those punks for lost sales (“de-platform” at your own risk, bitch). Job-wise, I like where I am right now; I still plan to be out of Corporate within five years. Do I love the technology industry? No, it’s unlovable. Do I enjoy computer science and mathematics? I do, though as I get older, I enjoy language and story-building just as much. I used to read about compilers in the evenings; now I’m more likely to read novels or books on story structure. So we evolve, so life goes.

My long-term outlook remains positive. Trump (the man who grabbed America by the pussy) will go out of office and someone will replace him. Frankly, I’d rather have Trump try fascism and, due to his narcissism and possible senility, fail; than have a Silicon Valley founder try it and succeed. Also, while the technology industry is nukular buttfail, technology is just too important for the world to let a manchild oligarchy on Sand Hill Road manage it. Technology itself will survive, in some form, probably better than what exists now. History has its own force and, while uneven, it trends to the good. Things will get better– at some point. Probably. But it is a necessary element of maturity to recognize the limits to what one person can do.

On that note, I better go smack some words together.

Trade Publishing Will Change Or Fade Away. Here’s Why.

This is not a rant on the superiority of self-publishing versus trade publishing. As I’ve said before in comparing the two, neither one is monolithic. It is impossible to call one or the other better. They are different approaches to getting written work into the world, with pros and cons.

Still, I think there’s little doubt that today’s prototypical trade publishing deal is a dead end. Forget about the six-figure advances and full-on press blitzes. Most authors get tiny advances and nonexistent publicity. A mediocre advance isn’t necessarily a problem. If it were the same sum of money, one would rather get paid because she sold to readers who bought, read, and loved the book, than because she sold to a publisher who overpaid and might be upset. The lack of publicity is a problem. Bringing publicity to written work is… what publishers are supposed to do. Moreover, trade publishing becomes a blame culture when a book flops, and the author has the least power and takes the blame, and won’t get another book deal. This doesn’t only happen to bad writers, because there are myriad ways a book launch can go wrong and only a few pertain to the quality of the book. I’ve seen this happen to talented writers as well.

If you’ve had that happen to you, and you’ve given up e-book rights… God help you.

At the high end, book advances have gone way up, even into the seven-figure territory that was once considered an embarrassment (because celebrity books, while they’ll sell enough to justify those advances, are invariably the worst written). This increase in high-end advances is not necessarily a good thing. If you’re a serious author, you’re not as concerned about the advance as where you rank in the season’s lineup, because it determines what you actually care about: how many readers you’ll reach.

In the olden days, a book like Farisa’s Crossing— lead-title material from a first-time author– got a modest advance (often below $25,000, sometimes under $10,000) but massive publicity efforts. If you wrote well, you didn’t even worry about the advance. You knew that if you wrote something good, your publisher would make the right calls, get you the right reviews. If they weren’t prepared to do that, they’d reject you.

Talented writers got rejected– that’s nothing new– but they didn’t get ripped off. You’d gladly take a deal with a $5,000 advance because the publisher had already delivered Charlie Rose and Times Daily, so the advance meant little anyway, as you’d be earning royalties as soon as the book hit the stores.

It’s different now. A few novelists get massive advances and massive publicity. Most– even many talented authors, because authors tend to be poor negotiators and most agents aren’t going to put serious effort behind people without track records– get mediocre advances and mediocre to nonexistent publicity. It’s the latter that’s the problem. The advances matters a lot in 2017, but only as an opening statement about the publisher’s interest in the book. I’d rather have no advance and a publisher that does its job than a six-figure advance and no publicity– this does occasionally happen, when the author does something in the interim to piss an editor off, and it’s a recipe for humiliation. A strong advance on a book that sells poorly (or, worse, is of low quality, should have been rejected, but catches on and gets bad reviews) is a platform for embarrassment.

Advances are backward-looking; writers need to be forward-looking. I’m not afraid to say that I’m good, but I’m not as good as I’ll be 20 years from now. This is a progressive, get-rich-slowly game. The old publishing world wasn’t afraid to build track records over time and set people up to hit big on their fourth book. That doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Three books with four-figure sales don’t lead to serious efforts; that track record leads to oblivion. It doesn’t matter if 25 years pass and the writer becomes a lot better, nor does it matter if trends change; bad sales then make a loser now, as trade publishers see it. You’re better off changing your name, and presenting yourself as a debut, than trying to build off a track record of low or even average sales.

Publishers make advances necessary, because they put so little muscle behind so-called “midlist” authors (a term that, historically speaking, was not pejorative) that the going assumption, today, is that a small advance will come with pathetic publicity efforts. Talented writers, in the past, didn’t demand huge advances because they trusted their publishers. Now, in many cases, the working assumption is that a book without a massive advance– that is, a book that won’t cost the publisher if it fails– will get nothing from the publicity department.

It’s slightly more complex than that, in truth. As an author, I’d probably take a print-only, no-advance deal from a top small press (many small presses don’t offer advances) that showed enthusiasm from the book and convinced me that they could sell copies. I almost certainly wouldn’t take a standard $5,000 deal from a “Big 5”. While Big 5 publishers can do a lot for a book, it isn’t going to happen for a $5,000 book. Traditional publishing draws a lot of soft power from “If you review this book, your kid gets into Harvard” calls at 9:30 pm, but executives aren’t staying after hours to make sausage for the $5,000 books. They save that for the $500,000 books. At a Big 5, six-figure books are career-altering for everyone who works on them; four-figure books aren’t. So which books get the real work?

I do think that there are other solutions to the trust problem than six-figure advances for first-time authors. However, they’re more complex than the current business model allows. Basically, we need a system where authors can set aggressive distribution targets and recover all rights if they aren’t met. I don’t feel entitled to a $200,000 advance (even though I have put over a thousand hours of work into the book). I do consider myself entitled to have my rights back, so I can self-publish or work with someone else, if a publisher isn’t competent enough to sell 100,000 copies of Farisa’s Crossing.

Massive advances generate publicity, envy and resentment– and the latter two of these often make excellent publicity, because while there is such a thing as bad publicity, an emotional enemy often cannot deliver the bad kind very effectively– but they’re an expensive way to market a book. But, let’s look deeper. Why would a publisher throw “a major deal” ($500,000+ advance) at an unknown author, just for the publicity? Usually, massive expenditures for publicity’s sake fail. We learned this in the 1990s with the dot-bombs; the $2 million launch party was failed marketing. We’ll learn it again when the current technology bubble deflates. Business book authors can buy positions on bestseller lists and recoup the losses in their mainline careers, but for a novelist to do that would incinerate money, and publishers need to think the same way. So, why do these expenses happen? There’s a simple reason.

No one knows what sells books.

That’s right. No one’s good at selling books. Most publishers aren’t. If they were, the industry would be different from what it is. Authors wouldn’t have to fight to get appropriate publicity and promotion out of their publishers, because the publishers would know how to spend $1 to make $2; the fact that they don’t is the reason why so few authors get the goodies. Most self-publishing authors aren’t good at it either; there are millions of self-published books, and most only sell a few copies. I won’t claim, for my part, to know how to sell books either. It’s a rather easy observation, from the state of the publishing industry, that no one knows what’s going on. It’s rather hard to know what is going on, and I suspect that anyone who’s figured it out is keeping quiet, like a trader who discovered a workable arbitrage.

No one knows what sells books.

The king-makers in trade publishing are finding it harder to make kings. Books can get six- or seven-figure advances, favorable reviews, and still flop. On the other side, J. K. Rowling got a print run of only 500 for the first Harry Potter book, but achieved world-changing success. It’s not that the trade publishers are bad at predicting what’ll sell; it’s that everyone is bad at it. They’re bad at it; I’d probably be worse. I’ll admit that.

This works to the advantage of self-publishing authors, to the detriment of traditionally published authors, and perhaps to the detriment of trade publishing outright. Why? Simply put, it’s the number of tries you get.

That is, in a nutshell, why self-publishing isn’t going away any time soon. It offers more tries.

If we’re all playing a game that we can agree no one is good at, but that presumably has some cause-and-effect elements (it’s chaotic, but not completely random) that can be learned, then the players who can iterate more stand to win more often, and might develop some skill in it. A quant or an applied mathematician might refer to it as a multi-armed bandit problem, with the additional caveat that there’s some hard-to-predict time behavior to it. One book might soar after a 10,000 e-copy giveaway; another might cannibalize its own sales potential. A romance novel will probably get more lift from bus ads than epic fantasy. These aren’t set in stone rules; they’re true now, of certain types of books, and will evolve.

A trade-published book has to plan its publicity before the book’s even launched. It has to generate “book buzz” that is at best uncorrelated with the quality of what’s on the pages. Why is that? After its launch, the book has eight weeks to sell through, or the bookstores get impatient and shut it down. Readers get some element of say, but only if they can put that cycle of finding the book, reading it, recommending it all of their friends, and their friends buying it, in fifty-six days. “Word of mouth” is a fuzz term that publishers use for the gaps in their knowledge and for chaotic elements of the process, but it’s often mundane issues of distribution, or subtle trends in cover art appeal, or various other things unrelated to the book’s quality (e.g., that Uber got bad publicity, and high-income people are seeing bus ads again) that make or break the first 56 days. That’s just not enough time for the quality of the book (especially, given the profound impact that Manhattan king-making has over short-term sales) to dominate in terms of results.

If a trade-published book disappoints early on, there are two ways to handle it. One would be to give it more publicity so it can achieve a critical mass of readers and discussion and reverse course. The other would be to cut losses, pull out, and let it rot on a back list somewhere. It requires an intelligence that few people have to know which is the right approach. These days, they often take the latter approach. A bad opening week leads to disinvestment and, even if it’s not the author’s fault, the author eats the blame and will probably never get another book deal.

An author’s career is defined, first, by the amount of publicity given to the debut novel, and, second, by events preceding and in the 8 weeks following the novel’s launch. Bad roll of the dice? Bad author, the industry decides, and she won’t get another book deal.

For a contrast, if a self-published book sells poorly in the first 8 weeks, what happens to it? Nothing. No one notices. If the author’s first attempts at publicity don’t pan out, she can try something else. It’s not a one-shot-then-everything’s-over game. Authors can keep playing. That gives the iteratively-playing self-publishers an advantage. Sure, some people who bet big on one moment (one agent, one publisher, a six-figure deal and an October launch and let’s hope there’s not a recession) will win; but sustainable winning streaks require experience with wins and losses over time.

I don’t expect traditional publishing to die completely, and I certainly wouldn’t want for that to happen, because it does a lot of good things. There’s a lot of value for the reader in curation and quality control, and while the self-publishing ecosystem (whose best work now rivals that of traditional publishing) is inventing its own mechanisms for quality validation, there will always be prestige and stability that people see in the traditional mechanisms. Also, traditional publishing, for all the slamming it takes, will put effort into great books that will never sell well. A biography of an obscure 19th-century doctor is unlikely to sell more than 2,000 copies, and would not justify the massive editorial efforts that biographies require on its royalties; these are cases where trade publishers do a great job.

Moreover, most promising writers will try traditional publishing at first– to see if they can land “superagents”, then land the lead title deals that can make careers very quickly– even if self-publishing becomes the way in for 70-to-90 percent of the top talent (which it likely will) in fiction. There will be stubborn writers who can’t bring themselves to overcome stage fright without the support of a six-figure trade deal, no matter how rare those become. The would-be literary hotshots will go back into investment banking when they realize that an Ivy League degree no longer suffices to get big-ticket book deals at 22. Good riddance.

There’s also a lot of corruption in the system. Many awards and top-shelf reviews are unavailable to self-publishing authors. I’m sure there are massive bribes paid every year to keep this the case.

Trade publishing won’t die, but if it wants to retain its current level of importance, it’s going to have to develop a mind for the new game… and in the new game, iteration and learning just might beat king-making and favor-trading.

In the long run, I have to bet that a process of iteration and refinement (self-publishing) will beat out a game where most players only get one or two shots– especially in a chaotic climate where no one really knows what’s going on… including me. All I can do is write a good book. I’m cutting myself off here, because I should get back to that.

“That Was The Culture Then”

Alleged (and probable) serial sexual predator Harvey Weinstein offered a sloppy seconds mea culpa for his record of, if even the smallest bit of it is true, atrocious behavior toward women he worked with. He came of age in a prior era– the Hollywood era in which Roman Polanski could have sex with a 13-year-old girl and (to this day) avoid accountability– wherein bad behavior by powerful entertainment executives “was the culture”.

What he’s saying is correct. That culture existed in an older version of the workplace, and it exists in the modern one. Sexual harassment is far too common. It’s the culture now. The sexual harassment culture of the average VC-funded startup makes Mad Men look restrained. So, yes, that was the culture then and it’s the culture now. People with power abuse it. The people who want power the most are the most likely to abuse it; to them, power is useless if not abused. That’s nothing new, and it probably won’t go away either.

So, Weinstein’s claim is spot-on accurate, and also… it’s no fucking excuse.

This is what I hate about the filth that our society has allowed to take up the most important positions. They legitimately believe that “the culture” justifies terrible actions. As executives, they do terrible things because “the shareholders” will demand it. They soak up leadership positions, but they don’t fucking lead. They do shitty things because the people around them do shitty things, too, and seem for a long time to get away with it. They’re no better than anyone else; on the whole, they’re worse? In that case, why do we keep these expensive, useless people around? Why not throw them aside, with bone-breaking force, so competent people can step up?

Who creates the culture? People do. And some people get a megaphone and their voices carry a thousand times farther than others. No one should rest on “the culture” as an excuse for terrible behavior, but especially not the people with the power to change it. Fuck all these assholes, and fuck the shitty “culture” they hide behind.

End rant.