Monday, 2 March 2015

Duotrope's Digest, Three Years On

Helping the headless since August 2005.
Somewhat over three years ago now, I wrote a post titled No More Free Duotrope's to commiserate the fact that Duotrope's Digest - self-described as a "service for writers that offers an extensive, searchable database of current fiction, poetry, and non-fiction markets, a calendar of upcoming deadlines, submissions trackers, and useful statistics" - was moving from a donation-based model to a subscription-only one.  I've been a user of, and a fan of, Duotrope's for more years now than I can be bothered to count.  But having recently resubscribed for one more, and with doubts that I'll do so again come 2016, I thought that this might be the time to come back to the question I posed a third of a decade ago: is Duotrope's a good enough, vital enough service to warrant the $50 a year it currently costs?

Inevitably, the answer is "yes and no" - but to that I may as well add straight away that, for me, it's now more no than yes.  I said at the time that $50 was too expensive and lo and behold, it's still too expensive, a fact I'm feeling more now that writing is my only source of income.  The thing is this: I'm not paying for the submission tracker because I have a spreadsheet that does that, nor for the calendar of deadlines because again that's easy to do myself.  I'm certainly not paying for those useful statistics, since they're rarely terribly useful - but also for other reasons I'll come back to.  What I'm personally paying my $50 for is the database and the market updates, and unless those provide me with sales well in excess of $50 to markets I wouldn't (and couldn't) have found out about otherwise, there's just no way I can justify the expense.

There's a reasonable argument that 2014 scraped past that line, with sales to three anthologies I found out about from Duotrope's listings.  But when I stop to analyze that, the picture quickly looks less rosy: it works out that I paid them about 14% of what I earned because of them, which is only marginally less than the rate an agent would charge.  And if all an agent did was present me with a list of potential markets and say "knock yourself out," I wouldn't be paying them a thing.

Perhaps, in a sense, that's both an unfair and an overly restrictive yardstick to judge Duotrope's by.  Just because I'm not using all those other features, that's not to say they don't have value.  Nevertheless, it seems to me that the moment a service becomes commercial, it opens itself up to such criticisms; clearly, most of us don't pay for something for no reason.  The point where a service begins charging, in fact, raises a whole host of expectations.  Three years ago I said that "maybe I'm wrong, and that extra cash will see Duotrope's develop into something even more marvelous" and I think what bothers me particularly is that that's exactly what hasn't happened.  This may to some extent be a failing of memory, but I'm fairly sure that, but for a few aesthetic differences, the Duotrope's Digest of 2015 is largely the Duotrope's Digest of 2012.  The added income appears to have done little but keep it ticking over, which feels unambitious from a site that once upon a time improved on an almost daily basis.  In fact, more and more, it seems like a service stuck in stasis.  It frustrates me, for example, that they're yet to amend their criteria of professional markets in line with the SFWA's not-that-recent revision; I realise the SFWA don't run the world, but since the Duotrope's definition for both short fiction and novels is exactly the same as the SFWA's old one, it seems a safe bet that that's where they got it from.

Oh, one last grumble, while we're here.  An obvious point of contention that the owners of Duotrope's acknowledged when they moved to the paying model was that anything which reduced the size of their user base would inevitably affect the quality of their data.  The point has been repeatedly made that this isn't the case; Duotrope's even has a specific page called "state of the stats" that exists to deflect such criticisms.  However, it also has a page that shows which markets have registered the most responses, and that tells a somewhat different story.  In retrospect, it's one that should have been obvious: the quality of statistics for markets now depends greatly on how much they pay.  For Clarkesworld, with over a thousand reports made, they're probably rock solid.  For smaller, lower-paying markets - or for markets that don't pay at all - it's a safe bet they're considerably less reliable now than they were three and a half years ago.

Since I don't feel entirely good about sticking the boot into a service I've used devotedly for years now, I should finish by saying that at its heart Duotrope's Digest remains a profoundly excellent product. It's effective, intuitive, easy on the eye and has been constantly useful to me over the years; I have no idea how I'd have managed without it.  And while I don't think that directly charging the user base was the right choice when it came to monetizing the site, it's not a service I actually begrudge paying for; I was, in fact, one of the few people who used to donate regularly back in the day.  All I'm really saying is, Duotrope's is great, but it's not indispensable.  And for me it's now too expensive for what it actually provides.  If I'm going to be still using it in another year from now, it will need to be a damn sight cheaper - I'd posit $36 as a reasonable charge - or a damn sight more essential.

I sincerely hope it ends up being one or the other, because if I'm forced to give up on Duotrope's Digest, I'm going to miss it.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The SFWA Broadens its Horizons

At the start of February, some significant news broke - it seemed to me - rather quietly: after a referendum of its membership, the Science Fiction Writers of America overwhelmingly decided to amend their guidelines so that self-publication and small press credits would be recognised as qualifying criteria.  How precisely that works is still up in the air until next month, but the gist is this: if your self-published or small press novel earned the qualifying sum of $3000 within a year of publication then it will count for joining the SFWA just as any traditionally published novel would.

Many will consider this good news.  Others, perhaps, will consider it overdue.  Certainly it's been on the cards for a long time; as long, I suspect, as I've been a member.  At any rate, my own feeling is that a good thing has happened, both for the SFWA and the writing world in general.  To me the SFWA is a basically necessary organisation.  At its worst, publishing can be one of the more cutthroat industries on earth, and it's crucial for creatives - a group of people traditionally not so great at looking out for their rights - to build communities and bulwarks to protect themselves.  The SFWA is one of the oldest of those, and one of the few that wields meaningful power.  It makes sense that it should set its borders wide enough that everyone who should be inside them is.

On a similar note, any trade organisation is bound to benefit from a multiplicity of viewpoints.  As an SFWA member, I absolutely want to hear the experiences of writers who've made successful careers within self-publishing and the small press, every bit as I much as I do those who've done the same through more traditional means*; despite what people sometimes appear to think, none of these paths are mutually exclusive, or even mutually incompatible, or really any damn thing but mutually beneficial, and I'd like to know that I'm getting the broadest range of expert advice I can.  There are many routes up this particular mountain, and I'd hate to get caught in an avalanche because I'd missed a path that someone could have told me about in the mountaineers club house and argh, this is a terrible metaphor, I know nothing at all about mountaineering.  I shouldn't even start these things, they never end well.

Look, if it's not obvious by now, I'm happy to admit that I voted for the amendment.  With books due from both a traditional and a small press publisher, not to mention plans to self-publish at some point, I have no horse in this race - or maybe too many horses, but let's not go there! - and I'd have found it hard to justify any other decision.  The small press / professional press distinction is not a particularly helpful one in my experience, and it would be foolish in the extreme to suggest at this late stage that self-published novels are any less valid that those put out by the Big Five.  Accepting that there have to be clear criteria for a professional organisation to be a professional organisation, surely setting a sensible bar is more productive than fussing about whether people are clearing it in the correct time-honoured fashion. 

In that regard, there's perhaps more work to be done - as I'll likely discuss one of these days, I still consider the SFWA's definition of professional rates to be shockingly low - but this feels like a huge move in the right direction, and here's hoping it's a sign of more positive change to come.

* Although, let's face it, though the forms may change, the small press and self-publishing are both as old as publishing itself.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Patchwerk Sold to

As is the way of publishing, I've been dancing around some big news for the last few weeks, until stars were sufficiently in alignment and ducks were appropriately in rows; but now the official announcement has been made, and I'm in the clear to say that have picked up my debut novella, Patchwerk.  Which is all sorts of brilliant news, because - well, because, for crying out loud.  Another one of my dream publishers ticked off the list, is what I'm saying.

It also means I get to work with my Angry Robot editor Lee Harris again, and to be part of a line-up that includes - as you would expect from - some of the best authors writing today.  I'm particularly geeking out to have my name in a list that also includes Mr Paul Cornell, one of my absolutely favourite creators, not to mention writer of brilliant graphic novel introductions.  And on a personal level, it means a lot to me for a whole host of other reasons too.  It's my first sale of a longer work since the Damasco novels, and since I went full time; in that sense, it's huge reassurance for the future.  By the same measure, Patchwerk was the fruit of a tough year, and as such absorbed that bit more blood, sweat and tears than it's slender thirty thousand words might suggest.  Writing Patchwerk also pushed me well outside my comfort zone, and I had to up my game accordingly; so that it's been picked up by my first choice of publisher feels like a vindication.  Once I invent time travel I now know that I can go back to my self of two years ago and let me know that it will all be worth it - whilst at the same time, of course, passing on a few choice lottery numbers and the secret of time travel, so that I can share it will all of my earlier selves too...

Oh, and speaking of irresponsibly mad science, Patchwerk has a whole lot of that going on.  My protagonist Dran Florrian is exactly the kind of guy who would invent a time machine to tip himself off about his own future, with all the inevitable awfulness that would involve.  Only what he's actually done is to create a reality-emulating machine called Palimpsest, which as it turns out is probably that bit worse.  Creating a device that copies aspects of other multiversal realities onto your own is, in fact, about as bad as an idea can be, however many safety checks you might build into it.  At least it is if said device has a mind of its own, and especially so if you let it fall into the wrong hands...

Which, I should mention, is only the beginning of Patchwerk, and from there things get much, much stranger.  And that's all I'm going to say for the moment, because spoilers of course, but also because it's tentatively due out some time early in 2016 and I'll no doubt be talking about it a whole lot more between now and then.

Monday, 9 February 2015

To End All Wars Actually Really Finished

It's a truism that nothing you write will ever be entirely done - there'll always be another draft, proofs, copy edits, crying over missed typos when you finally hold the finished article in your hands - and its another truism that I have a bad habit of declaring things finished at every opportunity, even when they're clearly not.  Nevertheless: as of last weekend, my fourth novel To End All Wars is effectively complete.

That's to say, I've done three drafts, I'm happy with it, it's as good as I feel I can get it.  Which means, from my point of view, that it's good enough to finally get packed off to my agents, Zeno, and of course I'm desperately hoping that in the longer term it will be good enough that someone will throw money my way for the privilege of unleashing it upon the world.

I've come to think - and it took me a while to get to this realization, obvious though it sounds - that you should write the books you want to read.  I mean, it is obvious, right?  But perhaps it takes a certain amount of learning to get to a point where it feels comfortable, and to figure out exactly what it is you want to read and how exactly you get to go about producing that.  At any rate, I'd like to hope that that's what I did with the Tales of Damasco, but I'm really confident it's what I've done with To End All Wars.  It brings together a whole lot of genres and influences and themes that I find  interesting and then tangles them up amidst a setting I'm completely fascinated by: the First World War, but more specifically, the wider context of that period when Edwardian values were abruptly, transformingly assaulted by the horrible reality of industrialized warfare.

And if that sounds a bit bleak and serious then I should probably emphasize just how much other stuff has gone into the mix, from adventure novels to a host of classic (and some more obscure) science fiction influences, to period dramas and country house mysteries, to stoic philosophy to ...well, you get the idea.  Or perhaps not.  Because something else I wanted for To End All Wars was that it wouldn't easy to pin down; I like the idea of a novel that constantly adjusts its relationship with the reader, challenging what they think it is and where it might be going, and that was what I tried to write: a book where even the genre might change from chapter to chapter to keep pace with the story's twists and turns.

Anyway, I should probably not say any more, right?  I mean, there's a lot of ground yet to cover; as with so much in the business of writing, this ending is only the beginning of the next phase.  Suffice to say, I've finished my fourth novel, I'm pretty damn excited about the whole thing, and I feel like I've written a book I'd be glad to read if I wasn't the one who'd written it.  That'll have to do for now!

Monday, 2 February 2015

Theaker's Turns Fifty

I have been writing, now, for oodles of years, he says, being purposefully vague because he can't be bothered to stop and figure out how long he's been writing for and also possibly because if he did then it would make him sound kind of old.  The point is, I've been at this writing thing for a while now, I've been selling short fiction for almost as long as I've been writing, and in that time I've seen a lot of markets come and go.  I mean, a lot.

Goddammit, now I am sounding old.  Maybe not that many.  But more than just a few, okay?  Enough, at any rate, that I've gained some insight into just how hard it is to keep a magazine going, month after month, year after year.

For this reason, I have much admiration for Stephen Theaker for getting Theaker's Quarterly Fiction to its fiftieth issue.  That's no mean feat.  Then again, nor can it be easy making a magazine as reliably good as Theaker's tends to be; and I'd imagine it's hardly a piece of cake to imbue that magazine with its own distinct character, something Theaker's has almost an overabundance of.  But I think that what's impressed me most over the years is how every time I return to it, Theaker's has grown that bit more polished, to the point where this "most amateur of magazines" (Stephen's words, not mine!) has been looking awfully professional for a long while now.  It's a hell of an achievement to produce fifty issues; it's an even bigger one for every one of those issues to be a little better than the last. 

As such, I got quite excitable when I ran into Stephen at last year's FantasyCon and he mentioned that issue #50 was on its way; so much so that I started immediately trying to force a story on him. Eventually we settled on a piece called The House That Cordone Built.  It's old work, but it's a personal favourite that I was always sad not to have found a home for, and I gave it a hefty overhaul before I felt happy letting it out.  It owes a lot to my possible all-time favourite short science fiction story, Heinlein's "And He Built a Crooked House", a lot to M C Escher, and there's a bit of stuff in there about interregnum religious cults too, because I don't know why but there is.

Anyway, here's Mr Theaker himself with some talk about what's going on in the rest of his momentous, half-century issue:

"This three hundred and twenty-four page issue – our longest ever! – features fiction from many of our previous contributors, who have returned to help us celebrate fifty issues and ten years of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction: Antonella Coriander, David Tallerman, Douglas J. Ogurek, Howard Phillips, Howard Watts, John Greenwood, Matthew Amundsen, Michael Wyndham Thomas, Mitchell Edgeworth, Rafe McGregor and Walt Brunston!

Plus reviews from Douglas J. Ogurek, Howard Watts, Jacob Edwards and Stephen Theaker. Stephen and members of the reviews team answer your questions in “Ask Theaker’s”! Cover artist Howard Watts takes us through his process in “Artful Theakering”! And there’s a round-up of everything Stephen Theaker read last year but didn’t have time to review! Happy fiftieth to us!"

Yes indeed.  If that's piqued your interest then you can go here to find a free copy in your format of choice.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Short Story News, Jan 2015

It doesn't seem that long since I was grumbling about how I couldn't sell short stories anymore, and now, seemingly out of nowhere, I have an awful lot of stuff (by my standards) on the way over the next few months.  Admittedly that's partly because a lot of my acceptances from last year have been taking a fair old while to come out, but still, this writing lark, eh?  First you're up, then you're down, then you're somewhere around the middle, then you're standing at a bus-stop in Wales trying not to get smacked by some bloke dressed as a Stormtrooper.

Anyhow, it now feels like I have more than enough stuff on the way that I should actually tell people about it, especially since there are a couple of things due out pretty soon, so here's the current state of play...
  • First up, I've a fair few stories in anthologies scheduled for the coming months.  Almost certain to be first out of the gate is XIII from Resurrection House, due in March and containing my Twilight for the Nightingale, (the one I keep referring to as my homoerotic supervillian story and then being surprised when that doesn't make people want to read it.)  Then in April we have The Hair of the Hound - an older story but a personal favourite - in Pantheon Magazine's Gaia: Shadow and Breath, followed in May by The Shark in the Heart in Sharkpunk, to be released by Snowbooks and edited by the irreducible Mr Jonathan Green.  (Jon is in full-on promotion mode right now, so expect to hear a lot about this one, and maybe have a look at its official Facebook page or blog or keep an eye out on twitter for @Sharkpunked and the #Sharkpunk hashtag.)  After that we have a bit of a gap until August and Purple Sun Press's first ever collection, Coven, which includes my All We May Know of God, a sequel of sorts to the also-anthologised No Rest For the Wicked.  Last up, due to a date not having been announced yet, there's Eldritch Press's Our World of Horror, and my twisted tale of sort-of sibling rivalry Br(other).
  • Elsewhere, I've a couple of stories waiting to be podcast, one new - Twitcher at Pseudopod, due on the exceedingly specific date of March 27th - and one old, namely Caretaker in the Garden of Dreams, to be published for the fourth time and podcast for the second at The Drabblecast, though without a date as yet.
  • As for magazines, it would seem a shame not to start with this year's most exciting anniversary: the oft-great and always bonkers Theaker's Quarterly Fiction is about to hit its fiftieth issue, and my equally bonkers, Escheresque Sci-fi story* The House That Cordone Built will be within its pages.
  • Honestly, I've never been as gobsmacked by a sale as I was when Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine accepted my story Step Light.  It's my one and only stab at writing  Crime short fiction, I had no idea if it was any good, and I only had the temerity to send it to AHMM because I'd run out of other ideas.  Selling to one of Dell Publishing's magazines has been on my writing bucket list forever, but I always imagined that if it ever happened it would be Asimov's or Analog.  Like I said ...writing, huh?  It's a weird old business.
  • And last up only because it has the word "last" in the title (and because I only found out about it half way through the post) my kinda-steampunk Fantasy story Last Call is going to be in Nameless Digest, though that's about all the details I know as yet.
So that's it for the moment.  And perhaps it's a good job, too, because for the absolute first time ever I'm starting to run low on things to sell.

Better get on writing, I suppose...

* And, it occurs to me now, blatant homage to Heinlein's glorious "And He Built a Crooked House", even right down to the title.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Announcing The War of the Rats

As their officially delegated spokeshuman, it falls upon me to announce that the rat populace of the world is - as of this date, the 18th of January 2015 - declaring total war upon the human population of the Earth.  They've had enough, frankly, and they're just not going to take it any more.  Pack your bags, people, and start looking for another planet with more placid rodents, because as of tomorrow this one is officially Ratworld Prime.

No, wait, that's not at all what this post was supposed to be about.   (Shuffles notes.)

Hum.  Okay.  So, I mentioned a few incoming projects in my round-up of last year, and it was a huge relief, because all of them were things I've been getting horribly excited about for ages now and not been able to talk much about.  And, thinking about it, a couple of them still fall into that category - though hopefully for not too much longer - but there's one at least that I can finally announce, and so this is me doing just that.

Here's one of the illustrations we DIDN'T use.
The War of the Rats and Other Tales, as it's tentatively known, is my first single-author collection of short fiction.  It's coming out from Spectral Press, (you know Spectral, they get nominated for British Fantasy Awards with alarming reality and have or are due to publish work by most of the top writers in British horror,) in August of this year, in e-book, paperback and super special, limited edition hardback.  And all of those editions will include illustrations by my artist mate and long term collaborator Duncan Kay, who seems to get better by the month and is currently sending me stuff that, frankly, would make your toes curl.  Seriously, there's a reason I've wrangled Duncan into two of my major releases for this year, and that reason is that he's shockingly good at this illustrating lark.  Whatever else The War of the Rats and Other Tales is, it's going to look beautiful.

That possibly means that I run the risk of my stories being upstaged in my own first short story collection; still, if readers manage to tear their eyes from the pictures, I'm hopeful that some of my all-time best fiction is going into this thing.  I mean, we have stories that have appeared in some of my favourite markets: places like Nightmare, Bull Spec, Flash Fiction Online.  We've got a tale that was in a Stoker-nominated anthology, another that was in last year's Stoker winner, (which, by the way, also happens to be my personal choice for the best horror story I've written.)  Maybe most exciting for me, we have my Spectral novelette, previously only available in very limited edition, and a new novelette written at the end of last year especially for the collection.

That one's called The War of the Rats, funnily enough.  And it isn't about rats declaring war on humanity.  I just made all of that up.

Or ... did I?

No, I did.