My Fiction Site

In the right sidebar are clickable images of the covers of my novels, which will take you to their Amazon listings. Other posts will link to available free works – mostly shorter ones – and assorted thoughts on the writing of fiction.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Soapy Sales

     Balph Eubank had joined the group around Dr. Pritchett, and was saying sullenly, “...no, you cannot expect people to understand the higher reaches of philosophy. Culture should be taken out of the hands of the dollar-chasers. We need a national subsidy for literature. It is disgraceful that artists are treated like peddlers and that art works have to be sold like soap.”
     “You mean, your complaint is that they don’t sell like soap?” asked Francisco d’Anconia.

     [Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged]

     This fine morning, Sarah Hoyt has an impassioned article at PJ Media about the offensive campaign by left-wing writers, critics, and publishers of fantasy and science fiction to denigrate – indeed, to delegitimize – older writers and older works in those genres that have remained popular. Here’s Sarah’s counterpunch – and she lands it right on the point of their collective chin:

     If the art is so great, how come no one is buying it? Besides the artist who is spending way too much time with absinthe and way too little time with quill and paper, or brushes and canvas, that is?

     Oh. I see. Because the general public is too stupid to appreciate the greatness of the artist. Because the artist is “ahead” of the public.

     The “artist ahead of the public” conceit has been used to rationalize just about every failure by a critically praised “artist,” regardless of his field, to make it big with the consuming public.

     The leftists’ sotto voce complaint, of course, is that despite their dominance of the heavily politicized Hugo and Nebula Awards, their books don’t sell. But why don’t they sell? They’re award winners, aren’t they? The “critics” praise them, while simultaneously casting aspersions on the “primitive forebears” of their genres. All the “best people” approve and applaud them. So why are their sales weak?

     Now, now, let’s not always see the same hands!


     I think it was Robert Ringer who said that all commercial activity of any sort requires salesmanship, and therefore, that proficiency in salesmanship is the sine qua non of commercial success. The sale of fiction is not an exception; it merely appears to be one because of the “gatekeeper” phenomenon.

     In the simplest terms, a “gatekeeper” is one who stands between the vendor and the purchaser, and who has a deciding role in determining whether the vendor’s product will reach the purchaser. In the pre-Internet era, commercial publishing houses were gatekeepers for fiction: unless the writer was willing to go to a subsidy house, he had no way to present his books to potential purchasers without the willing collaboration of a publishing house. As the publication of hard-copy fiction is a chancy business, there were never many publishing houses, and therefore not a lot of books were published each year.

     It’s possible to feel a certain sympathy for the editorial staffs of publishing houses – I call them, collectively, Pub World – while nevertheless feeling frustrated by their narrowness of vision and angered by their “progressive” impositions upon writers. Pub World editors appear to labor under the delusion that only left-wing obsessives purchase fiction, and therefore, that only fiction that expresses left-wing political sentiments should pass their scrutiny. Indeed, some writers who’ve succeeded in winning the acceptance of Pub World have subsequently lost their publishers’ favor by introducing a conservative motif in an otherwise politically indifferent story; consider Nick Cole’s travails in this regard as an archetype.

     Are there exceptions? Well, there’s Baen Books. I’ve been straining to think of another. I can’t come up with one.

     I must emphasize this strongly: A gatekeeper is not a censor. A censor has the power of the State at his back; the State’s armed agents will enforce his decisions about who may and who may not publish. However, a gatekeeper can accomplish much the same end as a censor...unless a route around him can be contrived.

     What the gatekeeper cannot do is compel readers to purchase the works the gatekeeper has offered them.


     The independent writers’ community – indies, for short – has experienced explosive growth these past few years. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and other electronic distribution outlets are ever more heavily populated by fiction that Pub World will not offer us. Granted that the overwhelming majority of indie novels and stories are pretty poor...in many cases, multidimensionally poor. Traditionally, Pub World’s gatekeepers prevented poorly conceived, poorly written, and poorly edited or proofread books from being offered for sale, though in these latter years that guarantee has expired. With indie fiction, there is no guarantee; the purchaser is on his own.

     With so many indies importuning the public, and with so much poorly conceived, poorly written, and poorly edited or proofread garbage among their offerings, “big successes” among them will be uncommon. However, the indies have some advantages over Pub World:

  • Low price;
  • Diversity of viewpoint;
  • The willingness to experiment.

     These don’t completely offset Pub World’s advantages of “the mark of quality” and its intimate relations with traditional retail outlets. However, as brick-and-mortar book retailing shrinks and ever more readers turn to eBooks, indies’ edges have helped them collectively to eclipse Pub World in aggregate sales.

     In short, indies are practicing better salesmanship than Pub World. They’re offering more readers something close to what those readers seek to purchase – again, collectively. And it’s sending Pub World and its favored writers into the Slough of Despond.


     Needless to say, I “have a dog in this fight,” being an indie writer myself. However, for analytical purposes I’ve tried to view the field disinterestedly. In doing so, what’s come to mind is the old marketers’ mantra:

Differentiate the product!

     Should Pub World’s offerings become even more homogenized, they would appeal to a more narrowly defined taste, and therefore to an ever narrower slice of the reading public. Readers hungry for something different would peel away from that pack. Indeed, this trend is already in progress. The indies are the beneficiaries.

     With apologies to Ayn Rand, the comparison to soap sales is inexact. Soap is more of a necessity than fiction, at least here in the United States. However, prosperity and a taste for novelty have had their effects on soap marketing just as they have on fiction. Note the explosive variegation in soaps, particularly shower soaps, these past two or three decades. It’s possible that the “old names,” such as Ivory and Dove, still outsell any particular varietal...but the varietals, collectively, outsell the “old names” by a considerable margin.

     From here, it would be all too easy to slip into a discussion of wine and the explosive recent expansion of New York’s wine industry, but the sun’s not yet over the yardarm here on eastern Long Island. Besides, I have a novel to finish.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

An Early Morning Grump

     The something-for-nothing mentality is rampant these days. Everyone seems to think he can get what he wants without somehow paying for it. I find it tiresome. I find many of its practitioners thoughtless.

     To be brief and blunt, I don’t “do” something-for-nothing. When I’m approached by someone who wants something from me, I expect to hear him say what he’s willing to give me in recompense. I don’t always hear such an offer of value-for-value. In fact, lately it happens less often than not.

     There are a lot of indie writers hawking their latest ebooks. Some of them have something good to offer, but these are a minority. Most should have put their time and energy to something else. Good, bad, or mediocre, they all want the same two things:

  • A readership;
  • Revenue.

     For an indie writer, self-published and therefore without the promotional power of a recognized publishing house, the royal road to a significant readership is reviews, particularly reviews at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All other methods of attracting the attention of potential readers and purchasers are lower-percentage plays, though now and then one will strike gold. So the ambitious indie usually tries to goose people into reading and reviewing his book(s) by offering friends and acquaintances free copies.

     In his marvelous high fantasy Lyonesse: Suldrun’s Garden, the late, incomparably great Jack Vance has a Supporting Cast character propose a curious meta-ecological mechanism:

     “A theory propounded by the savants asserts that every niche in the social structure, no matter how constricted, finds someone to fill it. I admit to a specialized occupation, which in fact has not so much as acquired a name. Not to put too keen an edge on it, I wait under gallows until the corpse drops, whereupon I assume possession of the clothes and valuables. I find little competition in the field; the work is dull, and I will never become wealthy, but at least it is honest and I have time to daydream.”

     The quasi-ecological system called fiction writing and publishing has many such niches. One of the more irritating entities to fill them is the “ebook publishing house.” Such a company sells itself to indie writers with ebooks to promote. It offers to assist them by publicizing their offerings and garnering Amazon reviews for them, for a percentage of the proceeds from sales of the ebook.

     I don’t patronize such organizations. I prefer to do my own work and stand on my own merits, even if that should mean that I’ll go unread by many who might otherwise fatten my wallet with their valuta and my ego with their praise. But they don’t feel the same about me, as the following email, which I received just this morning, will attest:

Hi there,

     Nice to meet you! This is Felicity from the publishers Inkitt. I saw your review of Drifters' Alliance, Book 3 and really liked your style of reviewing and think that we have an upcoming novel that you'd really enjoy and would suit your tastes; Eric Olafson: Midship Man by Vanessa Ravencroft.

     We wanted to offer you an exclusive Advanced Reader’s Copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review on Amazon, Goodreads or any other platform.

     I have included the blurb and important information below. Let me know if you would like to read and review and I will send along the ARC.

[Blurb and cover image appeared here, but they’ll get no free publicity from me!]

     Genre: Space-Opera/ Sci-Fi/ LGBT
     Release Date: May 24th, 2017

     So what do you think? Do you fancy coming along for the ride? :)

Over and out!
Felicity

     It’s not the first time I’ve received a solicitation such as the above. To be perfectly fair about it, it’s not a pure something-for-nothing play: I was offered an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC)of the aforementioned ebook. However:

  • I find the impersonal “Hi there” salutation discourteous,
  • ARCs are legendary for being unedited, barely readable messes;
  • The probability of the book being worth my reading time is about .01;
  • My correspondent Felicity appears quite unaware that I’m a novelist, too.

     That’s four strikes. Felicity and Inkitt ought to go back to the dugout. But I have a soft spot for indie writers, and a penchant for turning the tables on cold-call salesmen and mass-mailing marketers. So I replied as follows:

Dear Felicity,

     First point: Please note that the salutation above uses your actual name. This is considered courteous, at least among those of us who still regard courtesy as worth an effort.

     Second point: I, too, am a novelist. If you had searched Amazon for my name, rather than merely using the email address you found for me, you would have known that -- and you might have included a mention of something I wrote, which would have ingratiated you to me somewhat. That you didn't make the effort counts against you.

     Third point: These review-solicitations-out-of-the-blue are akin to spam, at least when practiced in this fashion. I know you're trying to help your client authors and make a few bucks. Aren't we all? But there are classy, courteous ways to do that. This is on the grubby end of the scale...and it's not the first time I've received such a solicitation from your organization.

     All that having been said, I dislike to disappoint anyone who's praised anything I've written, even if it's only one of my reviews (vanity, vanity, all is vanity), and I like to help other indie writers when I can. But I mean to get something more than a free ebook for my time and effort. So I’ll make a deal with you: If you or someone you nominate will read and review Which Art In Hope at Amazon, I’ll read and review whatever it is you’re hawking. But you must tell me beforehand the name of the person who’ll be doing the review (among other things, so that I can email him a free copy of the ebook) and his review must be as good an effort as the ones I write: detailed and thoughtful, regardless of the star-rating. Otherwise, I’m not interested.

Sincerely,
Francis W. Porretto
Liberty's Torch

     Would anyone care to put money on a positive response?

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Sex In Fiction, Especially Fantasy And Science Fiction

     I must be getting old. At least, I can’t imagine any other reason why it takes less with each passing day to light my boilers, spin my turbines, and send my pile critical. It can’t be the W-plus bosons; I swept for them yesterday.

     No, I think it must be my decreasing patience with persons obsessed with sex.

     Obsessions come in many varieties. A sexual obsession need not be about “not getting any.” This morning it’s a critic’s displeasure about fictional characters who are getting some. (With one another, of course.) It’s not the first time. But it’s got me wondering why such persons dare to read fiction in the speculative genres.

     I need more coffee if I’m to do this properly. Back in a minute.


     Regard, if you please, the panoply of Mankind across the millennia. Consider how widely our customs, especially our customs about mating and procreation, have varied. Consider in particular that many societies, including Jewish and Christian ones, have varied from what Jews and Christians of today mostly view as proper sexual conduct.

     Let me be maximally explicit about this. There have been Jewish and Christian societies that sanctified plural marriage. There have been Jewish and Christian societies that accepted sex between the entirely unmarried as no more than a peccadillo, provided that if any offspring were to result, the couple would then marry. There have even been Christian societies (I don’t know of any Jewish ones) that, while they regarded homosexuality as deeply unfortunate and life-limiting, did not execrate it as a terrible sin.

     And that’s just Terrestrial Judeo-Christian societies. They haven’t all embraced Saint Paul’s dictum that the only licit sex is between spouses in a monogamous marriage.

     But I intend to speak here of fiction and fictional settings. Fictional societies will have fictional norms and customs. A fictional Christian society cut off from its Terrestrial forebears, such as the one I depicted on Hope, is unlikely to share those forebears’ norms and customs in every detail. And needless to say, a fictional non-Christian society will have its own unique norms and customs, which will be influenced by whatever degree of religiosity applies to it.

     Yet persons unhappy about Louis and Christine’s passion, or about Althea, Martin, and Claire’s triad-marriage, continue to berate me, as if such a thing must never, ever be countenanced even in a far-future speculation. What sort of fiction do they read with total approbation? Do the characters in it ever stray from their prejudices? Do they ever use contraception? Do they ever just let their hair down and fuck?

     It seems unlikely.


     Allow me to provide two sidelights of significance. Just now I’m reading Tears of Paradox, a dystopian novel by Daniella Bova. The novel’s two Marquee Characters are afflicted by sexual tension they don’t even begin to resolve until they’ve married. Why? Because they’re Catholic: one much more serious about it than the other, at least through the first quarter of the book. That’s the premise. They behave in accordance with it, as is entirely consistent and proper for persons of those convictions.

     I have no problem with that. Why should I? Miss Bova has created characters with particular convictions. Each one’s behavior accords with the degree of allegiance he feels toward his faith and its teachings. That’s her prerogative as the story’s creator. I would no more dream of criticizing her for it than I would dream of demanding a slice of the Moon.

     Another series I’ve recently enjoyed – and very much, at that – is E. William Brown’s “Daniel Black” fantasy series, which I mentioned illustratively here. The sexual mores depicted in that series are far distant from what contemporary Jews or Christians (if at all doctrinally observant) would countenance. So what? It’s fantasy fiction about a world in which the Norse and Greek Pantheons are fighting a war of extermination against one another. How reasonable would it be to demand that Puritan sexual mores apply there?

     It would appear that for some readers, sex is an untouchable. A story that fails to accord with their prejudices in all details is simply unacceptable. I can’t imagine what they would read for pleasure...if pleasure of any sort is something their convictions would allow them.


     I could go on about this for pages. It’s part and parcel of one of my greatest disagreements with Christian doctrine. But this isn’t the proper time or place for that particular tirade.

     Sexual pleasure and sexual acceptance are among the great motivators of human existence. The great motivators are the things that provide events of substance to fiction. To exclude them reduces the writer’s toolset for drawing his characters into situations worth writing about.

     There was once a time when books would be banned from publication, here and elsewhere, for daring to include sex scenes. The most famous and important case of that sort was U.S. v Ulysses. There haven’t been many cases since then of comparable stature.

     Times have changed. Among other things, we’ve become somewhat more relaxed – dare I say, more realistic? – about sex, at least sex in fiction. At least, some of us have. However, readers who can’t bear to see their prejudices set aside for the sake of an involved story founded on unique premises still exist.

     I pity them.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Where The Books Are Headed

     “I’m only here for the weekend,” he said.
     “I’m dancing as fast as I can,” she replied.

     [Barbara Gordon]

     In the wake of this wholly undeserved praise from Mike Hendrix, enough readers – old and new – have been asking “where’s your fiction headed?” that I figured a brief post about the matter would be appropriate.

     With Statesman, the Realm Of Essences series has left the Earth. I’m afraid my fictional USA (and the rest of the world) are in for some rough sledding. There will be more stories involving characters from that series, but the principal “story arc” terminates with Sumner’s rescue and exile to the Arcologics Habitat.

     With Freedom’s Fury, the Spooner Federation series has left Hope in transition back toward States and their multifarious consequences. As the saying goes, “this will not end well,” at least for the planetside population. But Althea is unwilling to be ruled, and a bit less than willing to live out her indefinitely long life immured inside an airless rock. Further interstellar travel, in search of a new world to colonize, lies ahead for Althea, Martin, Claire, and of course Probe.

     A gratifying number of readers have asked whether there’s anything left to the tale told in Love In The Time Of Cinema. I’m of two minds about this. I love that little novel; I return to it simply for my own refreshment, embarrassingly often. However, just now I can’t find a way to evolve more stories from it. Not that I’m about to stop thinking about it! We shall see.

     The “stand-alone” novels, The Sledgehammer Concerto and Priestesses, occasionally evoke queries, but I’m content to leave them be, at least for the moment.

     Here’s what I have on the drawing board:

  • A novel founded on a “dark” version of the central motif in A Place Of Our Own and One Small Detail;
  • A novel that extends the stories told in The Warm Lands and The Common Good;
  • A novel set inside the timeline of Statesman that explores necromancy and why one might attempt it;
  • And a notional novel that would unite the timelines of the Realm Of Essences and Spooner Federation series with a set of “capping” events.

     As I’ve said before, I don’t write fiction with the ease or speed I enjoy with op-eds, so please bear with me while I sort it all out.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

F.A.C.E. Press Now Considering Submissions

     Are there any other Christian indie writers out there who’d like to have a publisher’s imprint on their books? Perhaps you should talk to the F.A.C.E.:

     Yes, that’s me behind the false nose, fake mustache, and dark glasses. But I don’t intend it to be a purely personal enterprise. It will give me a vehicle for assisting other indies with the several chores involved in preparing an eBook for publication.

     NOTE: The current Website is a “starter home.” It’s likely to be moved to a non-Blogger host at some point. Don’t let that inhibit you if you’ve got material you think is worthy and would like to submit. But do put your best foot forward. My standards are rather high, so don’t submit hastily dashed-off or un-proofread, unedited dreck.