Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

Noreascon 4: Sunday

Sunday was actually a fairly programming-heavy day for me. This is appallingly long, as a result. But we're almost done!

The first panel was on the dark arts of publishing. If you're not interested, skim down looking for "end panel report" in bold.

DOA: Books that Died Despite Everything. Description: Well-known author, well-developed plot, thorough marketing plan, yet the book fails to thrive. Why? Did it show too much ambition or too little? Was it old-fashioned, or ahead of its time? Were the stars wrong, or the season, or were we simply coming down with the flu? Let us count all the sad ways good books go bad . . . Our panel will discuss the phenomenon from multiple viewpoints. John Jarrold, Jane Jewell (m), Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Janna Silverstein, Jonathan Strahan, Jacob Weisman

Nielsen Hayden (PNH) is a senior editor at Tor and manager of the SF and fantasy department; Jewell is current SFWA executive chair; Jarrold is a UK publisher; Weisman runs a small press. I don't think Silverstein and Strahan were there. I'm going to try and make this report moderately terse.

Jarrold said the reasons for books dying on arrival are legion, and can be as simple as the wrong cover, or the editor moving houses, or the sales department falling down.

Jewel said that she thought the author name change was a bad idea, as it lost the author the prior audience. She said the readers want to know, but sales reps are Evil. PNH disagreed with her on sales reps, saying they're mostly a force for good; they don't work in the field if they aren't diverse and avid readers. Also, they can be a corrective to getting the packaging wrong, by hand-selling the book to buyers. (Of course, the books may just sit on the shelf in droves.) Blind Lake is a good example of bad packaging: he was in charge of it, and "what an ugly cover" (yes, it is. Amazon image). Fortunately, SF fandom from way back is partly a network of information to say, "this book is horrible; but this book, it just has an ugly cover."

(Weisman had a similar example, of one of his favorite books, Rax by Michael Coney. He compared it to, I believe, The Left Hand of Darkness, yet it had an awful title (changed from Hello Summer, Goodbye) and a grotesque yellow early DAW cover. Another example PNH gave later was Susan Palwick's Flying in Place, which everyone fell in love with so much that they just overworked the packaging like crazy, killing it dead. They're bringing it back as both adult trade paperback and a YA.)

Weisman noted that DOA books that got a lot of push still tend to sell lots of copies, just not as many as expected.

He also stated that word-of-mouth doesn't work, because books only stay three months in the big chains. As I shot up my hand to say, "Um, in what universe?", PNH disagreed much more diplomatically, saying, well, the three months is a moving average, and things vary by whether it's mass market paperback, trade paperback, hardcover, or established authors. Booksellers are interested in selling books, and Borders and B&N are successful because they pay attention to authors. He mentioned a first hardcover series by a nameless established author, that is taking off slowly, but the chains are leaving it on the shelves in hopes of it gaining traction.

Jarrold said that the UK has a problem with WH Smith having half the market; apparently buyers there aren't clueful about SF. PNH said that the US is lucky that the buyers for the two big chains do understand the field, though of course they're hard-headed business people too.

Jewell brought up the Thor Power Tool decision, and PNH pointed out that it's twenty years old and still being brought up. He reported that Tom Doherty dismisses it, thinking that accountants found ways to deal with it pretty quickly. The real changes were to the mass market from 1988-2000; it went from 800 independent wholesalers getting books to non-bookstores, to three wholesalers.

On the other hand, PNH said, Tor's Orb backlist program has been very successful; the evil chains are actually a huge force for diversity, because they have so much shelf space (and people will drive out of their way to get the latest big seller at a place where they can also browse other things).

Chad asked, with regard to chains, that he thought small press books were more available now. Did this affect the number of books DOA? Weisman said it was kind of ironic, that with the death of the backlist too many books were being published, and it was hard to compete: yes, lots of shelf space, but they get two books on one of those shelves. Exposure is the key; he said that sales of a short story collection by Eileen Gunn, Stable Strategies and Others, spiked like crazy when it was BoingBoing'ed. (Chad's bought a copy, watch his book log for an opinion.)

Question: can an author help? PNH: with mass market paperbacks, not so much; the numbers are too high and the turnaround is too fast. With midlist hardcover, there's stuff you can do, but it's at the margins. The best thing an author can do is generate buzz among fellow authors, prior to publication, to get quotes and BoingBoing links and whatnot.

Question: can an author hurt?

  • PNH: an editor author in the field was unhappy about the bookstore placement of his first novel, so got the home phone number of B&N's CEO and called him at midnight to yell. All subsequent novels of this person have been published under a different name.
  • Jarrold: don't threaten stores.

/end panel report

After this, Chad and I went to Pratchett's reading. He read a chapter from the forthcoming Discworld novel, Going Postal (yes, it has chapters and it's not a YA); the Patrician has arm-twisted the protagonist into starting up the postal service again, and in this chapter, he finds surprising things at the old postal building. I'm really looking forward to this one; I like characters who find themselves to be good guys in spite themselves, and getting the post running again should be fun, especially in Ankh-Morpork. He also read from the third Tiffany Aching book, Wintersmith; it was very gripping, and ended on an evil cliffhanger. Actually, I think he didn't intend to stop the reading there, but when the room burst into applause at the evil cliffhanger line, he decided to leave it at that. He then auctioned off the copy of Going Postal for TAFF; I believe it went for $270.

After that, I ran into the "Confronting Your Characters" panel for a few minutes ("A participant will take on the role of an author's main character, and complain to the writer how badly the writer has treated him/her. The writer gets to respond . . . " Hilari L. Bell (m), Carol Berg, Lois McMaster Bujold, Steve Miller, Elizabeth Moon (though I didn't see Miller)); it looked like fun, but I really needed lunch. I bumped into sloanesomething on the way, so as we ate, we made plans to meet up later so I could make her buy books. Mwah-hah-hah.

After lunch and a browse, I went to another panel:

Creating Gods. Description: Gods are important characters in fantasy works from mythology to the Silmarillion to Saberhagen's "Swords" novels to Discworld. How does one introduce superbeings into a work without pushing the human characters into insignificance? Gods are often gigantic projections of human characteristics. Can they serve other functions as well? Additionally, why are polytheistic settings so common in fantasy? What are the sources that authors are using, and why? And why do readers find them so compelling? Lois McMaster Bujold (m), David B. Coe, Glen Cook, George R. R. Martin, Tamora Pierce, Jo Walton

This is not a comprehensive report; I was trying to calm my compulsive note-taking, and I think I didn't write down a lot of what GRRM or Coe said, just because I've either never read their books or don't remember them that well. (Cook doesn't appear much here because he is a laconic guy.)

George R.R. Martin (GRRM) said that he thinks having gods as on-stage characters is almost always a mistake. He prefers religion on-stage for lots of reasons, but the balance with human characters is one.

Coe said he's an atheist, but it's anachronistic to do medieval settings without religion; it's a challenge for him to create religions.

Walton said that she doesn't create gods, she finds them behind the couch and dusts them off. Her Sulien books have gods as characters, because they're in part about the transition between late antiquity to medieval times, which includes the transition from polytheism to monotheism. She thought that most of the ways this had been written about assumed that people were stupid and that monotheism couldn't have any actual appeal. She limited the gods by the way magic worked in that world: gods have power, but people have will; gods get people to act through persuasion, people reach out to gods who give them power or not.

Lois McMaster Bujold (LMB) said she came to a similar solution in her Chalion books: the gods have no material powers at all—except for the palmed card of the Bastard (it's extremely useful to palm a card in case you need it later). She set up five gods to avoid dualism, and then of course immediately created a dualistic heresy. She reversed the usual theory of evolution: in her universe, the gods arose of out matter.

Pierce said there's no monotheism in her books because she doesn't do it well; she was affected by folklore at a very young age. The Tortall gods are on the Greek model, so there's not so much risk that they'll take things over, since they are like large spoiled children, and people still have the right to smart-mouth them back. There, the mortal realms are the tiebreakers, they solve debates and power struggles among the gods by what they do. (We are never going to see the Circle-verse gods; I think she said she's learned better now.)

Cook said he uses minor deities in his books; none of them have any of the big three omni's (omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent). These deities are more powerful but more petty than people. He works from the belief theory of deities, thinking that it's just how the universe works; in ours, for instance, they're very powerful without ever sticking a foot in. He said that because he can't understand belief, he's working on a new project where religion is all-pervasive and deities really walk the earth.

LMB in her moderator function asked what thematic purposes are served by deities.

  • Pierce: they represent the basic threads or cables of the real world; the Trickster represents uncertainty, for instance. They tend to deal in balance, for her; because they look at things from the smallest to broadest scales, they can be a way to bring in both sides of everything.
  • Walton: Hawthorne talked about "the truth of the human heart"; there are things you can't touch but are real, like love. Story very often is from the cracks between two systems, and gods create more cracks. (She said later that's why the gods in her books couldn't be alien superbeings, because of the thematic difference, rather than the plot difference.)

    (My notes here go on to say "seeing religion & magic as essentially something can do without—Tolkien, McKillip, Earthsea", and I have no idea now what that means. papersky?)

  • LMB: in the Chalion books, she mapped social functions onto gods, with lots of deliberate slippage. Also, polytheism allows you to play with religion wihtout dealing with present-day issues.

There was then a discussion of monotheism v. polytheism. Walton mentioned fantasy novels by Naomi Kritzer in which the society went the other way than usual, from mono to poly. Someone, I'm not sure who, pointed out that a lot of old poly religions weren't very nice. Walton said that it would be very interesting to see novels based on current poly religions, like Hinduism, Shinto, and the religions of Africa and New Guinea.

And that's about it for my notes.

/end panel report

Then I went to the "What's New from Tor" presentation. Good news: they're revamping their web site!

Things that might be of interest to some of you:

  • Mel Odom writes librarian hero novels (The Rover, The Destruction of the Books).
  • Elaine Cunningham's Shadows in the Darkness is like Angel working as a consultant for C.S.I.
  • Charles Vess's self-published Book of Ballads is being reprinted in its entirety (yay!). Tor is not launching a graphic novel line, but they'll be printing some here and there.
  • Jane Lindskold's wolf series has really interesting and animalistic animals.
  • Charles Stross's The Family Trade is like Amber with economics and organized crime.
  • The sequel to Jumper is Reflex and will be out in October.
  • Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has a new Saint-Germain novel coming out in November, Dark of the Sun.
  • Matthew Hughes writes witty, interesting SF (Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice from another house, and new novel Black Brillion).
  • Robert Reed's sequel to Marrow is The Well of Stars.
  • Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town has an absolutely insane description, including something about your sister being a Russian nesting doll set (I think) and a plot to set up free WiFi in Toronto.

I left before the end, and wandered the dealer's room with Sloane. I wasn't able to make her buy everything I'd planned, but she did walk out with A Fire Upon the Deep, so that was cool. Also, I had a serious fangirl moment when I saw John M. Ford was at the NESFA table: "Hi The Last Hot Time is like one of my favorite books in the whole world and I want to make my friend buy a copy so do you know if it's out in paperback?" Etc. *hides*

I did bribe Nancy Lebovitz to make me a button with my name on it, which hopefully will be readable at a further distance than badges tend to be. And Sloane bought me a teeny "Go me!" button for the bottom corner of my badge (the name button goes at the top, through the clip's snap-loop). Yay, buttons.

Then we met papersky, marykaykare and Jordin, and malkingrey and spouse for dinner at Legal Seafoods in the Prudential. Upon arriving, it was clear that a) MKK had been misled when she was told that they wouldn't take reservations for a party of 7, and b) it would take an eternity to get seated without. So we called the Copley branch, got a reservation, and walked over. It took longer to be seated than they said, and they completely failed to bring me my dinner when it was ready, as I'd asked, instead of when everyone else's was, so I was (nominally) late to the Masquerade. But the food was tasty, and the conversation was good, and next time we will make reservations (this may or may not be Boskone, depending).

I'd never been to a Masquerade before, and I thought I ought to at least once, especially with Sloane who knows about costumes. Things were actually just starting when I snuck in.

I'm not sorry I went, but I don't think I'll need to do that again. Some of the costumes were very impressive, and I really liked the instant freeze-frame replay on the big screens—very helpful—but it is awfully long, and I would probably be just as happy looking at pictures.

Speaking of pictures, a few are available on the live blog. The three up were particularly good: the top was a group of historical figures traveling through time—Mark Twain, Annie Oakley, and others I have completely forgotten; the middle was one of four new Archangels, based on the Futurikons series; and Chimera was a single person with an amazing costume (those scales covered the entire body, IIRC).

The other good ones I particularly recall were: a youth entry, "The Grim Sweeper" (Death of Dust Bunnies!), which is a great idea; "8 Seconds," a bronco rider on a giant bug, very well-staged; "Not the Usual Unusual," Discworld meets Tom Jones, with meticulous costumes as well as a clever presentation. There was only one I thought was actively bad (well-executed, but in poor taste).

I was also impressed by the Trumps of Amber in the costume exhibit in the ConCourse (pictures, at the bottom, or one big picture).

I did not stay for the judging of the adult awards. I did stay for the half-time show, One Man Star Wars. This was AWESOME. I had no idea this was happening (apparently it was announced at-con; I didn't hear), and had never heard of it before: but it was hysterically funny and amazingly well-done. The title basically says it all: he condensed the entire original trilogy into about an hour, with one guy (Charles Ross) doing everything: music, eerily accurate voices and dialogue, fight scenes, spaceship imitations, everything. (There's a five-minute demo on the site, which is about 9.5MB in Windows Media Format, but is worth the download time. Some of the lines have been refined since.) I almost hurt myself laughing.

He does a One Man Lord of the Rings too, which he's performing at the Vancouver Fringe Festival through this weekend. I wish I could see it.

It was quite late after that, so I said goodbye to sloanesomething, fearlessdiva and Mr. Diva, and I think hhw too (it was late and getting far away in memory)—it was lovely to see all of you, and I'm sorry I didn't get to spend more time talking with you (except Sloane. I spent plenty of time with her)—found Chad in the bar, and headed off to bed. And now the laundry's done and I'm going to do the same.

Other Sunday reports:

Tags: cons, noreascon 2004, worldcon

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