The Science Fiction Gateway

Paul Raven @ 21-07-2011

For those of you not so deeply plugged in to the sf lit and fandom circuits of the intertubes, I’ll act as a repeater station for a signal worth passing on: venerable UK sf imprint Gollancz has announced its SFGateway project, which will integrate a growing backlist of classic sf titles in ebook formats with the also-forthcoming online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

Here’s the main meat from the press release, which you can read in full if you so wish:

Gollancz, the SF and Fantasy imprint of the Orion Publishing Group, announces the launch of the world’s largest digital SFF library, the SF Gateway, which will make thousands of out-of-print titles by classic genre authors available as eBooks.

Building on the remarkable success of Gollancz’s Masterworks series, the SF Gateway will launch this Autumn with more than a thousand titles by close to a hundred authors. It will build to 3,000 titles by the end of 2012, and 5,000 or more by 2014. Gollancz’s Digital Publisher Darren Nash, who joined the company in September 2010 to spearhead the project said, “The Masterworks series has been extraordinarily successful in republishing one or two key titles by a wide range of authors, but most of those authors had long careers in which they wrote dozens of novels which had fallen out of print. It seemed to us that eBooks would offer the ideal way to make them available again. This realization was the starting point for the SF Gateway.” Wherever possible, the SF Gateway will offer the complete backlist of the authors included.

The SF Gateway will be closely integrated with the recently announced new online edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which provides an independent and definitive reference source of information on the authors and books included. Direct links between the Encyclopedia and the Gateway will provide easy access to eBook editions, for sale through all major online retailers.

The Gateway site will also act as a major community hub and social network for SF readers across the world, allowing them to interact with each other and recommend titles and authors. The site is planned to include forums, blogs, regular promotions, and is envisaged to become the natural home on the net for anyone with an interest in classic SFF.

All of a sudden, I’m genuinely interested in buying an ebook reader. (Or at least a device with ebook-reading capabilities; I suspect the standalone ebook reader will be an exemplary illustration of Chairman Bruce’s concept of “obsolete before plateau”, killed off by convergence in the tablet market, folded in as one more function for your general purpose portable computing/connectivity platform.)

I’m quite impressed at how well Gollancz have kept this on the downlow for so long, too, especially given all the folk in the [aca]fandom circuit (myself included) carping loudly about publishers failing to embrace new platforms and technologies. The sheer joined-up-ness of this project (and the decision to base it all on pure HTML5, with no flash-in-the-pan walled-garden proprietary app crapola) is ambitious and forward-looking; I’m sure there’ll be some minor snags here and there, but I get the sense that this has been thought through very carefully, and that a certain allowance for tweaking and flex has been built in.

And to see that vast (and apparently set-to-grow) backlist of out-of-print titles brought back into availability is a thing of wonder. Ladies and gentlemen of Gollancz, and everyone else who has been involved: I salute you.

Two Roads Diverged in the Interwebs: Finding Your Place in Tradpub versus Selfpub

Luc Reid @ 06-07-2011

Mrs. Duffee Seated on a Striped Sofa, Reading Her Kindle, After Mary Cassatt - Mike LichtWriting for publication has always been tricky–not to mention challenging, exhausting, unpredictable, and demoralizing. Continue reading “Two Roads Diverged in the Interwebs: Finding Your Place in Tradpub versus Selfpub”

Young market problems: ebooks as clearing house for unpublishable content

Paul Raven @ 09-06-2011

Part of me really wants to get a decent ereader and start plunging into the brave new market of electronic books; as a writer, reader, some-time publisher and general technoforesight wonk, I feel I should be down in the trenches if I want to see how the campaign is really going. The other half of me is the half that’s been burned by classic early-adopter screw-ups ever since I acquired that tendency from my father; I’m waiting for either a universally accepted open format, a decent open platform, or both. (I doubt I’ll have much longer to wait; I expect I’ll be nailing myself an affordable Android-based tablet in the post-Xmas sales next year.)

So, perforce, I have to get my news about the actual content sloshing around in the ebook marketplace from other people… and while I’m not taking it as broadly representative, this post from James “Big Dumb Object” Bloomer highlights the state of play wherein creators and new middle-men/aggregator outfits are testing the water to see what will actually float. Or, to put it more plainly: everyone’s throwing shit at the wall in order to see what sticks:

The other day I bought How To Write Science Fiction by Paul Di Filippo, tempted by the price (69p) and the prospect of another author’s view on writing SF.

It’s an interesting read, containing thoughts on what maximalist SF is, how to (attempt to) write it and an essay on the creation of Di Filippo’s novel Ciphers. There’s a few interesting nuggets there for me to think about (plus, now, a need to read some Pynchon). However it’s not very long, not really a book and not really about how to write Science Fiction. It’s the sort of text I’d expect to be posted to a blog. It’s the sort of text that in physical form would be thin and flimsy, and I probably wouldn’t ever buy.

It’s going to take a while for pricing to settle down in line with customer expectations, but the nature of the content being sold is a big part of that. Perhaps it’s the case that no one’s gonna pay for a lengthy blog essay when there are umpteen thousand of the things – some of exceptional quality, others not so much – floating around out here on the unwalled web, just waiting to be read. But then again, Nick Mamatas’ Starve Better – my dead-tree version of which I’ve been greatly enjoying over the last week or so, incidentally – is essentially a collection of essays and articles, many of which either were or started out as blog posts or fanzine pieces; it’s retailing at $3.99 for a selection of electronic formats, and – had I been in possession of a decent ereader – I’d have considered that a damned good price for the material it contains. I don’t know how long the di Filippo piece is, exactly, but perhaps the problem here is the attempt to price a single essay fairly; meanwhile, Starve Better is a curation product, an act of filtering Mamatas’ prodigious output down to the best material devoted to a specific topic.

So perhaps we could say that Apex, by doing the old-school publisher thing, have added value to the raw material and thus earned their middle-man cut, while 40k – who, I should note, I think are one of the more interesting ebook ventures I’m aware of at the moment, and not just because they’re publishing a lot of stuff from sf authors – are just rolling chunks of content out of the door with a snappy title and hoping for the best. Maybe the latter would work at a lower price… but until someone sorts out a decent and widely-adopted micropayments system, pricing at under a buck will remain the province of big clearing houses like Amazon who can afford to eat up the transaction charges on a lot of tiny purchases. Economies of scale haven’t gone away just yet, it seems.

More musings from James:

Will this mean that buyers will tread ever more safely when buying books? Perhaps now people will only trust books from the bestseller top ten or those recommended by a high profile book club? It feels to me right now that the lack of physical form may actually hinder more experimental buying once the blush of the new fangled eBooks dies to the norm, the marketing departments have tried to pull a few fast ones and readers have been bitten by buying some dreadful self-published novels?

I think these are very real issues, and not just for publishing; a flattened media landscape means curation and aggregation are becoming at least as important as the traditional editorial roles, and the marketing/PR channel needs to become more focussed on finding the right niche vertical to pitch to, as opposed to the old model of making generalised statements of awesomeness about a piece of work and hoping some hack will cut’n’paste it verbatim. Interesting times ahead.

Interactive Storytelling

Brenda Cooper @ 04-05-2011

Last month I wrote about talks. This month I’m back on content, looking into interactive books. We have usable tablet PCs and e-readers scattered across almost every household (we have four!), but most of the fiction that I read on them is exactly like the fiction I read in a book. I want more. Continue reading “Interactive Storytelling”

Zen and the Art of Literary Gatekeeping

Paul Raven @ 04-04-2011

Via Chairman Bruce, here’s a very interesting post-and-comment-thread combo at Self-Publishing Review. It’s interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is the aforementioned comment thread, which contains (gasp!) spirited disagreement conducted with a rare degree of civility, but the big central point is one I’ve danced around a few times before: when the barriers to publication are negligible, will definitions of quality shift considerably by comparison to the old “gatekeepered” model? Or, more simply: when anyone can get their book in front of potential readers, will we find that “good writing” doesn’t actually matter to a lot of the audience? Because that’s what appears to be happening on the wild frontiers of the ebook boondocks right now…

From the original post itself:

At the risk of sounding like a snob: non-sophisticated readers will not care if writing is non-sophisticated, and there are a lot more non-sophisticated readers than sophisticated ones. That’s millions of potential readers.  Publishers might like to believe that they have the finger on the pulse of what sells – or what should sell – but when mediocre writing is becoming a bestseller, this pretty much renders the slush pile meaningless.

If mainstream publishing is really hurting for money, it would make sense for them to get into the ebook-only/print on demand business. Devote some resources towards basic editorial and cover design, some press, and see which books take hold. Right now, word of mouth is more powerful than reviews – a lot of people find books just browsing the Kindle store, rather than reading press about a book, and there is a lot of profit to be made on slush pile books that appeal to a huge number of people. It’s possible that eventually people feel burned by bad, cheap books and stop buying them – but, again, the majority of the reviews on many fast-selling self-published books are positive.

The (currently) final comment makes an important counter-argument, though:

This is an interesting and provocative article, but one that also completely misses the point. Yes, some quite poorly-written self-published books are selling in minor quantities (from a few hundred to a few thousand) in Kindle form. Why? Because they’re priced at around a dollar, whereas even the cheapest commercial Kindle titles sell for four times that amount and upwards.

Commercial publishers simply aren’t interested in selling a few thousand ebooks for a dollar apiece: they want to sell tens of thousands of copies, in both paper and ebook form, for between five and ten dollars apiece. To suggest that they could make a few extra quid by starting up self-publishing ebook sidelines is like advising a Michelin-starred restaurant to open a serving hatch late at night offering kebabs to drunks wandering the streets. Not only it is it not what they’re set up to do, but it would also very quickly cheapen their brand.

As mentioned before (by me, and by many far smarter folk from whom I’ve wholesale stolen the riff), gatekeeping is all over; curation is the new game, but the rules have yet to be written. The argument above, though, pretty much crystallises the root source of panic in the big publishing houses: all they’ve ever had to show their superiority to vanity presses and one-man-bands was their insistence on selecting for “quality” – though it should go without saying that “quality” is defined differently from one boardroom or editorial office to another. But all of a sudden, there are hints that “quality” may not matter to the biggest slice of the market pie… and when your entire philosophy of business is anchored solidly to that notion by a chain of centuries-old tradition, well, you’re going to struggle to swim with the tide.

Personally, I think it’s too early to say definitively that “quality writing” is a dead scene; the market is too new, too chaotic, and the metrics currently used to assess the market’s assessment of “quality” are utterly subjective – I really don’t place any faith in Amazon reader reviews whatsoever, for instance; an effective crowdsourced curatorial system will be much harder to game, and perforce deal with a much smaller slice of the total market (niche verticals, long tails, blah blah blah). But of course, Chairman Bruce has a long-game grenade to throw into the punchbowl:

The unseen literary player here is machine translation. It’s getting “better” fast, and we may soon be in a world where on-demand machine-translated texts become major literary influences. The real web-semantic breakthrough would be a machine-assisted ability to painlessly read texts outside one’s own language. At that point we’ll have entered an unheard-of state of linguistic globalized electro-pidgin.


It’s not that the slushpile is profitable; it’s that there is no longer an analog dam against which the slush can pile.

If the dam is gone, then the would-be curator must discover a new method for catching fish. Trying to work the whole river would be madness… but finding a little pool or slow-flowing channel to focus on might reward you with fish of consistent species and health.

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