I'm on Patreon!

I'm trying another new thing!

In the spirit of relentless and bold experimentation, I've started up a Patreon. "Wait, what?" you ask. "What's that? And why do I care?" I will tell you!

I'm posting my very first story to Patreon late this evening on April 1; likely around 8pm Eastern time, child obligations permitting. (I know, I know, but no foolin'). If you'd like to read that first story, chip in your dollar while the gettin' is good. Not so sure? Let me give you a piece of the first story. A taste test, if you will, so you know if you're getting broccoli or pie.

For one shining moment on her two hundred seventy eighth birthday, Neria Ciao was the most important person in the world. That was the day her level-500 Seelie Huntress ascended into the Keep of Eternal Silence to do battle with Zirnitra, the Black Dragon of Sorcery. 

It was a difficult fight; she used every hard-won trick and trophy she'd ever earned, spent all her potions and salves, used up her last precious Wish and cracked her lone Egg of Eritanus. Her heart beat faster; her muscles burned; sweat trickled down her ribs from beneath her breasts. She nearly died four times, saved only by luck, timing, and an incredibly rich supply of Sacred Essence of Golden Lotus.

In the end, it was all worth it. Zirnitra went down thrashing and wailing. It fluttered its wings once, twice, struggled back onto its hind legs. It collapsed again. Spears of light pierced through the spaces between its scales and then consumed its husk from the inside out.

Neria Ciao was the first to ever defeat it.

She posted the video of the fight before the dragon could even respawn. Predictably, her views and comments went wild. "Incredible!" "Great work!" "Never thought I'd see someone take down old Zirny!"

She even got a personal congratulations from The Vanished Lands dev team in Finland, who, it turned out, had checked in to watch her battle as soon as Zirnitra's health dropped below thirty percent. That had only happened twice before. 

By the time she went out to treat herself to birthday cake, she'd received three hundred million views, forty thousand messages and comments, nine hundred interview requests, and alerts that her name had appeared in four hundred news articles.

Not all of this feedback was positive, of course. Usually her systems would filter out the worst of it — the vitriol for its own sake, the jealous rage, the troublemakers looking for any soft target. 

One, from a stranger, slipped through her filters because it wasn't offensive. Not… exactly. It troubled her all the same. "You have all eternity before you," it said, "and this is how you choose to spend it?"

I'd be super thrilled if you decided to support my Patreon. Thanks so much for your time!

Let He Who Is Without Sin

Let's talk about Jonathan Ross and the Hugos. He was announced as the host of the Hugos at Loncon3, there was a Twitter uproar, and then he stepped down, all over the course of a few hours. This incident has left many people uncomfortable, and I'm one of them. 

I woke up one fine Saturday morning to discover that Farah Mendlesohn, a member of the Loncon committee, had resigned because a misogynist, racist, all around offensive fellow had been tapped to host the Hugos. (That would be Jonathan Ross.) I read her post (which has since been removed). I did a bit of light double-checking. I saw his controversies section in Wikipedia. I saw the Mirror article of his top ten most controversial moments.

Now here's the thing: when this began, I didn't know Jonathan Ross from Adam. I'd never heard of him before and had zero cultural context for understanding just how controversial he might be. Given the outcry, I assumed that must be pretty awful. I prepared to join that general outcry.

Within moments, my friend Naomi Alderman reacted to this question with utter bafflement. She's in the UK herself, and familiar with that media landscape. She's also as staunch a feminist as I know; indeed, she's habitually more sensitive to these issues in media than am I, and can't watch or read some things I enjoy because of their misogyny. Other UK friends soon corroborated: Ross was not a controversial figure in the UK, no more than Jay Leno. 

I found myself searching for reasons to defend the outcry. He must be an inappropriate choice, I thought. The internet had told me so. A bad fit for the event. Nothing to do with genre. We didn't need yet another white dude. And anyway look at how pissed off he is at all of these people calling him a sexist douchebag! Nail in the coffin!

It's important to recognize what happened in my head right there, and probably in others' as well. I, having no direct knowledge of the merits of the matter at hand, heard an accusation that appealed to my politics and sense of justice. And I leapt to a conclusion. I was willing to go to the mat for that conclusion. It turns out I might've been wrong.

Ross is married to a Hugo winner, so I'm thinking he knows the magnitude of the award. He's spoken at other genre events before. He's a steady advocate for SF/F in the mainstream. He's said some off-color stuff from time to time, to be sure, but looking at the grand arc of his career, it doesn't appear to be characterized by raunchy humor and exploitation.

People make mistakes, and the truth is often more complicated than something as straightforward as "Ross is a misogynist, homophobic, racist jerk." Ross has spent a lot of time in public life. He's going to screw up and say the wrong thing from time to time. I can't help but notice that most of those wrong things he's said happened several years ago.

For lo these many moons, we in SF/F circles have been fighting the good fight against all of the -isms. And we've made great progress, I think. As a community, we've become much more sensitive to offering perceived affront. Our literature is becoming more diverse, more representative, and richer and broader for it. It's been a good and necessary effort.

But meanwhile... I've seen a lot of discomfort from the SF/F men in my Twitter stream the past few days, a reluctance to talk about this issue in public.

I can't blame them. Suddenly we've created an environment where a high-profile individual saying the wrong thing at the wrong time risks being devoured alive, with no judge or jury. No benefit of the doubt. No pause to step back and measure the magnitude of the offense. Forget the ridiculous Truesdale petition about censorship -- but there is a real chilling effect going on here. People are afraid to disagree with what happened.

Fear doesn't make for good discourse.

Even saying "Hey, I think the accusations against Ross were overblown and ultimately wrong, we should chill out a little bit," could risk a dude losing friends or fans because suddenly they can be cast in the light of anti-feminism. Even good men, strong allies, active feminists. 

But you know what? I think the Ross-Loncon3 situation is a sign to us that maybe we should chill out a little bit.

...Because this isn't how I want my community to be. The shift from "this person is doing something objectionable right now and we have to stop it," to "this person said some objectionable things some years in the past and so he's not welcome among us," is one that gives me great pause. You know who else has said some objectionable things in the past? Me. You know who else? You.

I'd like to be in a community that practices forgiveness, that educates instead of excoriates. A community that gives second chances. That says, "Hey, that was wrong, you should apologize and this is how you can do it better next time," and not, "Don't let the door hit you on the ass on your way out." 

I'd especially not like to be in a community that says "You've screwed up before, so you're definitely gonna screw up again next time. Get lost, asshole." Which looks to me like what ultimately happened in the Ross situation.

I am by no means suggesting we stop advocating for equality, for representation, for moderation in public venues. I want these things to continue, and in spades. We want to create a safe space for all people. We want to discourage hateful speech and action. 

But we can't demand perfection. There are no perfect people. If we can't allow room within our community for people to screw up and get better, or for people to thoughtfully disagree, then eventually all the flawed people will be gone. And nobody will be left at all.

Juvenile Glaucoma, Health Insurance, and the New New Year

When we rang in 2014, it wasn't a fresh and optimistic start like one might hope. I had two big problems that needed immediate attention. First, as of Jan. 1 we were switching to a new insurance plan, and we didn't have membership cards or even numbers yet. When we called the new insurance company to try to get that information ourselves, they'd never even heard of us. We were functionally uninsured.

Second? A routine optometrist visit the day after Christmas had ended with an urgent referral to take my younger daughter to the ophthalmologist. She showed some concerning signs of juvenile glaucoma.

Glaucoma is a progressive disease; it slowly steals the sight from your peripheral vision, hair by hair, until you see the world through a tiny window. One day, even that window closes. It's slow but relentless. The vision glaucoma takes can never be recovered.

So for a short time early this year, I got some firsthand experience with the terror of knowing your child requires immediate medical care, but not knowing how to pay for it. Our choices were: wait until the insurance issue was sorted out -- which could take weeks -- or pay for a visit to the ophthalmologist out of our own pocket and cross our fingers that it might one day be reimbursed. That would be $250, the office staff told us.

They urged us not to delay.

Our insurance was held up by paperwork; the insurance broker hadn't submitted our enrollment in time, or maybe the enrollment hadn't been processed fast enough by the insurer. Nothing to be done, it was an act of god and government.

We were by no means alone. With the ACA coming into effect, insurance companies were overwhelmed with a glut of new enrollments, but we would be covered retroactively. In theory, anyway; in practice, the inability to get an insurer-approved referral from a primary doctor might nix the chances of reimbursement. And the process of actually getting that money back could take as much as six months.

We're very fortunate that in this case, we could afford the financial hit and see the ophthalmologist anyway. Even so, the days before that appointment were harrowing.

The Appointment

There was an examination. The doctor, whose manner with children is so playful that he's very nearly performing a standup routine, turned to me with a sober expression on his face. Her optic nerve was enlarged, just like the optometrist had said. He explained the cup-to-disc ratio to me.

"In a healthy Caucasian," he said, "it's normally 0.1 to 0.2. In an African-American, you expect 0.2 to 0.4. Your daughter's is 0.9."

He told me not to worry. It's never glaucoma, he said; in his 30-year-career, it had only turned out to be glaucoma once, and that had been effectively cured with a simple surgery. The odds were overwhelmingly in our favor. "Don't be worried," he said. "You can't be worried if I'm not worried, and do I look worried?" But his face was somber, his tone grim, and he pressed me to promise I'd wait no more than three weeks to bring her back for follow-up testing. Promise me, he said. No matter what.

Those tests would be expensive, he added. So very expensive, in fact, that insurance companies themselves will balk at paying if you perform more than one of them on the same day. I scheduled the follow-up appointments (at a potential $250 a pop, plus unknown additional fees for testing, with intimations that they'd run into the thousands of dollars.) I crossed my fingers hoping the insurance company would come through before then. What other choice did I have, after all? In a pinch, well, there's credit, or family. We could find the money. It would be OK.

Meanwhile, she needed glasses immediately. Not for her vision -- she only has a mild astigmatism -- but to protect her freakishly enlarged optic nerves from impact damage.

Even if it was glaucoma -- and it probably wasn't -- we could treat it. The equation for us was more one of managing discomfort and inconvenience than walking the line of catastrophe.

Still, these days in January were agonizing. It becomes difficult to concentrate, to sleep. In such a situation, you run through a million scenarios. What if it is glaucoma? What if one surgery doesn't do the trick? What about complications? How will she endure that? What if we really don't have insurance, and something has gone so horribly wrong that we won't be covered in time? And what if it costs so much that we can't find the money after all? 

A tightness settles into your chest. You cry more easily, you snap more easily. Perhaps you can keep it together during the day, when you're soothing worried relatives, when you're shuffling children off to school and cooking dinner and signing homework sheets. Mustn't frighten the children; they can't see you worry. 

It erodes at you, this worry. Maintaining the illusion that nothing is wrong nibbles away the edges of your ability to cope. If it keeps up long enough -- well. There are marks.

Toward the end of the month, the insurance came through, and the ophthalmologist scanned my daughter's retina with lasers. He was visibly relieved. The result was good -- so good that we moved additional follow-up testing to late May. We've since discovered that an older relative has a similar ratio, and no apparent glaucoma. So: a family congenital anomaly. No big deal. It's possible my kid has some field-of-vision problems, and she appears to have problems with color perception in one eye... but this is a hell of a lot better than surgery and looming blindness. We'll take it.

(And this isn't even including the almost-fire we had the first week of the year, which required we air the house out to eliminate smoke on the coldest night in twenty years. Which is its own blog post, in a way. Polar vortex, huh?)

Single-Payer

When I wasn't busy being scared, I thought a lot about fairness in that time. I thought about poverty and privilege and insurance. I thought about the role of government in society.

I thought about all of the families for whom it really was glaucoma (or cancer, or diabetes, or leukemia, or...) who didn't have the resources to pay out-of-pocket and damn the insurance. People who still have no insurance, or have a plan with such a high deductible as makes no difference. The ones for whom that decision would mean missing rent or missing meals.

I've always been an advocate of single-payer insurance. No family should have to weigh those factors. No child should suffer a treatable illness with permanent or fatal results because their family doesn't happen to be comfortably middle-class. Oh, sure, health care is available to everyone at an emergency room. But you know what? You can't get glaucoma (or cancer) treated in an emergency room.

In New York State, the Working Families Party is now pushing for single-payer insurance. I would urge you with all my heart to support such legislation in your own state (if you're American, anyway.)

This is not an economic issue, and it's not a public health issue. This is not a matter of controlling costs or ensuring a healthy workforce. This is a moral issue. 

The New New Year

Even with such a crisis averted, the parts worn away from you by stress take their time to regrow. I've been very fragile this year. It doesn't seem to be returning to normal as quickly as one might hope.

So on midnight going into March 1, I declared it a New New Year. It looks like 2014 has been really rough for many of us, not just me -- the relentless weather, to be sure, but there's also been a zeitgeist of uncertainty and fear. We're quick to anger. We're prone to falling victim to brain weasels. It's been a bad time.

But spring is right around the corner.

Apples, Oranges, and Author Earnings

I mentioned on Twitter last week that a recent update on Author Earnings comparing extrapolated Amazon data to Bookscan numbers is actively misleading. I thought it might bear unpacking that a little bit by way of analogy.

Imagine there is a grocery store selling both apples and oranges, and you need to figure out how many of each fruit is sold in a week (or at least which sells more than the other.) So you camp out in the store for an hour, and count how many of each fruit the customers buy. 

You're probably going to get some useful information from that, to be sure -- whether the ratio between apples and oranges is roughly comparable, for example. You can even extrapolate from that hour -- multiply by how many hours the store is open, and you might get a ballpark number for how much fruit is sold. But that number risks being wildly inaccurate, because you're relying on that single sample hour to be perfectly typical. But a store has busy hours and slow hours -- some hours nobody's buying. Some hours, maybe someone's buying fruit for a world-record-size fruit salad. Some hours, you get a run of people allergic to citrus. All you can get is a very rough idea.

You can also ask a couple of orchard owners how much they get, look at the prices in circulars, and try to work out how much money the grocery store is making off fruit. But it would be a terrible mistake to try to, say, calculate the orchards' operating income from that loose guess of yours. The picture is a lot bigger than that one hour at one store, and is influenced by a lot of other factors.

Now let's say you get your hands on another source of information -- maybe the inventory records of a competing grocery store showing how many oranges it sold that same week. That's hard data, and it's great -- you can learn a little more about the size of the orange market in town from that.

But you can't then combine those two kinds of information as if they were the same to make conclusions about, say, whether Grocery Store A sells more oranges than Grocery Store B, and certainly not about whether Sunny Orange Productions is making more money than Crisp Apple Growers.

One of them is a cobbled-together piece of data and guesswork; one is hard data, but for only part of the equation. Each one of them tells some interesting stories, to be sure, but it's just as important to know what information the data can't tell you.

Self Publishing Pros & Cons

Yesterday, self-publishing wunderkind Hugh Howey launched a new site called Author Earnings, with a really fascinating report that suggests self-published authors earn as much as traditional publishers do -- in fact, his numbers suggest they earn more.

I have a few reservations about this data. For one thing, it leaves out other income streams available to traditionally published authors -- foreign rights sales, film sales, distribution on store shelves, and the like. I also find it extremely problematic to extrapolate actual dollar figures from Amazon rankings. One book might be at #2 selling 1500 copies in a day where the #1 is selling 1600. Or if there's a book that's selling 4000 copies, another selling 3800, another selling 3600, etc., those might be #12 and #13. Rankings are relative, not absolute, so the experience of a handful of books that hit the top of the charts simply can't give you a meaningful sales volume for other books at those ranks.

Related to that -- it's my experience that a book can float up to a higher rank on one good sales day, then sink like a stone. So extrapolating a full year of sales income based on a single Amazon sales rank is a very dicey proposition. Some of those books may have sold a hundred copies, and may never sell more than five in a day ever again; that doesn't mean those authors are guaranteed to make $10K for the year.

That said, these are problems with the methodology that would appear to affect both traditional and self-published books equally. What the data does show me isn't so much that self-publishing is a better bet, so much as that self-publishing isn't a bad bet. These books have an equal shot at the best-seller lists on Amazon. They move a comparable number of volumes. It may even be fair to assume the higher royalty figures on a self-published novel are enough to offset foreign rights sales and distribution on store shelves.

How, then, does an author decide what path to pursue? Let's take the issue of whether you can make comparable amounts of money off the table. What's left to think about?

Editing and Production. A good author-publisher is hiring an editor to help polish up the novel before it sees a reader. But a good traditional publisher is going to give you an editing pass to tighten up the story, and a separate copy-editing pass to fix the grammar, spelling and punctuation. Few author-publishers are hiring two separate editors, and while some talented editors have equal facility with macro- and microscopic issues, by no means do all of them. On the other hand, multiple passes over the same volume are a lot of work for the author. In my experience, doing a full review of multiple editing passes of the same book plus looking at your print galleys for any final changes is, eh, about as much work as producing an ebook your own self.

So in the end, the same amount of work is involved with both kinds of publishing. One has more eyes on the ball, and might produce a marginally higher-quality result, but if you hire a very skilled editor, you may well get the same result either way.

Promotion. This can have an enormous influence over the success of your book. It's nice to think that an excellent book will find an audience with or without promotion, but frankly this isn't true. The cream does not always rise on the internet; there's simply not enough room at the top, and too much stuff fighting for our attention.

Simply having a publisher carries some degree of promotion with it right away. Once you're on a publication schedule, you'll automatically get more interest from reviewers and inside-baseball readers. Word of mouth can spread from there; a traditionally published book starts with a leg up.

Self-published books are harder to promote, because not as many paths are open and you mostly have to go it alone. Many reviewers won't look at a self-pubbed book. Advertising is widely regarded as ineffective. Promoting by hanging out on forums and boards about self-publishing strikes me as trying to sell Avon at an Amway convention. If you have a great social media platform and the ear of a couple of bloggers, you can make some waves, but it takes a lot of hustle -- more hustle than many of us have in us. You can always hire a publicist, if you have the cash, but it's by no means certain that the book would earn enough to justify that expense.

Advantage: traditional publishing. More doors are open.

Awards Eligibility. ...And this is a stand-in for legitimacy as a whole. It's not clear how self-publishing affects your eligibility nor your odds of being nominated for major genre awards -- the Campbell, the Hugos. But I don't think it's doing anything good for your chances. And a million self-published volumes sold still won't get you into SFWA. 

This is going to be a very personal element in the equation. Some of us couldn't care less about awards and organizations; we're in it for the readers, for the income stream, for the fun of it. But some of us crave these signifiers of accomplishment. How you come down on this one is entirely up to you.

Time and Flexibility. Traditional publishing is painfully slow. You're looking at several months to get an agent, several months to submit to publishers and get a contract, several months to get to publish. If you self-publish, you can get a book out there faster, see how readers respond to it, and take that into account as you're writing the next book. You don't suffer the risk of (for example) discovering that nobody wants a series only after you've completed the third volume, or the fifth.

And assuming that money is equal -- getting a book out sooner rather than later is a victory. If a book is going to sell five thousand copies the first year and two hundred a year every year after that, and you wait three years before publishing, you've lost six hundred sales.

Advantage: Self-publishing.

Investment and Return. One of the crazy scary things about self-publishing is that to produce a quality book, you have to invest some of your own money into it. You need a quality cover. You need a skilled editor. These things cost. If you're self-publishing, you're out of pocket for it. If you're traditionally published, not only does your publisher cover these costs, but they're also giving you an advance.

This means that you're guaranteed to make money on a traditionally published book. It's possible to actively lose money on a self-published work, if you put investment in it and it just doesn't sell.

This is another one of those very personal decisions. Are you comfortable betting your own money on your book? Then self-publishing is great for you. If not, traditional publishing might be a better fit. (Or if you have an existing audience, you might be able to crowdfund and mitigate those costs through what are essentially pre-sales.)

Availability. And here's the rub: these two publishing paths aren't going to be equally available to all authors for all books. Conventional wisdom is that a good book will always surface in the end, but we've all seen reports of authors who didn't get an agent or a contract until their second, third, fifth book... and then the earlier volumes sold gangbusters. Some writers never get representation at all, never strike an agent nor an editor the right way. Some of them probably give up. That doesn't mean they couldn't have found audiences if they'd gone it alone.

That gatekeeping function can serve as an important warning to you that your book is poorly written, trite, boring, or a half a dozen other kinds of terrible. Sometimes you're being rejected for a damn good reason. A lot of the time! And if your book is really bad, you don't want to hurry to put it in front of readers. Once burned with a bad book, they may not be inclined to try your next one. You only get one chance to make your reputation.

But if you want to publish with a traditional publisher, and you get a lot of nibbles but no flat-out bites... if you get the sense that you're almost there? Maybe it's time to shift gears. It's looking like it's by no means a career-killer to self-publish, not anymore.

There's not one true path at this point. There are clear advantages to both routes, and a lot of elements that come down to personal taste. You can relax and stop worrying about picking the wrong thing, I think; just make your decision and roll the dice. It's already a gamble anyway.