This was originally posted as part of a discussion of e-books and the publishing industry over at The OWW-SFF Writing Group. I’m cross-posting it here, since parts of it may be of general interest.

Let me outline a possible future for the publishing industry. This is based on what we already see in the music industry, plus a little bit of optimistic speculation. My basic conclusion is that the coming changes in the publishing industry are likely to be good for unpublished and newly-published authors, but it may be bad for some other segments of the industry.

First, what do we have right now? If you’ve written a book, there are three possible outcomes:

1) You don’t sell it. Nobody reads it except for your mom, and you get zero dollars.

2) You sell it to a small press, which puts it out as POD, e-book, or (maybe) paperback. You get somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars.

3) You sell it to a major publisher, who puts it out as a mass-market paperback or a hardcover. You get somewhere between a few thousand and a billion dollars.

An important feature of the current market is that there’s a steep cut-off between the small presses and e-publishers, which pay very little, and the big publishers, which pay 2-3 times what you’re likely to make at a small press even at the lower end of the payscale. Plus, at the big publishers you get an advance, which often aren’t paid at all by small presses.

Now, let’s think about the future. E-readers become common and affordable, and the price of e-books drops below $5. People who are avid readers move mostly to e-books for price and convenience, and because the price has dropped they buy more of those than they would have bought paper books. Sales of physical books drop as readers move to digital formats. Casual readers, the sort who buy books for the beach or the airplane, mostly stick with physical books, since it’s not worth their time to get an e-reader that they rarely use.

The result? The market for e-books expands, while the market for physical books drops. Paper books become restricted to best-sellers and specialty items, like signed limited editions. Some of the big publishers go out of business or merge, while the number of e-publishers goes up to take advantage of the bigger market. Some midlisters are pushed out to the e-publishing market. As e-publishing loses its stigma, the accepted career path becomes to move up through the small presses building an audience, and to make the jump to paper after years of publishing, if ever. The big publishers have already delegated the slush to the agents; agents start delegating the slush to the small-press editors, and work by poaching the top 1% of small-press writers and selling them up to the big leagues.

Now, why would you like this as a writer?

1) You get something rather than nothing. The e-publishing houses have more niches, more opportunities, and more ability to take risks, so your chances of getting published are better. You’ll get hardly any money at first—but right now the most common outcome is getting no money at all.

2) Your back-catalog always works for you. As mentioned by others, you can’t sell used e-books—but when a new e-book costs the same as a used paperback, why not buy it new? And you get the royalties from those sales, forever.

3) You have a clear ladder towards fame and fortune. It used to be that writers were expected to make their name in short stories, then sell a novel on the basis of that reputation. With the collapse of the short fiction markets, that’s much less the case these days, so writers have to sell their novels to a public that’s never heard of them, via publishers that are understandably hesitant about taking these risks. The e-publishing model gives you years to build an audience in lower-risk venues before trying to move up.

It may be that it’s harder to actually make a living as a writer in this world—but how many of us are making money, anyway? I, for one, would be happy to release my books as e-books and sell a few hundred copies for the present time. It’d be a lot more than I’m making from my writing now.

Mark Liberman has a post up at Language Log discussing Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels, and in particular his “upper case phoneme”.

I’m a fan of Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels, but I’d like to suggest, respectfully, that they might be improved in their approach to matters linguistic. As an example, on p. 470 of his recently-released novel Matter, we learn that “Marain, the Culture’s language, had a phoneme to denote upper case”.

Linguists would usually call a unit that denotes something a morpheme (or perhaps a word), not a phoneme, even if it was only one phoneme long. (In fact, we sometimes find meaningful units whose effect on pronunciation is just a single feature.)

In addition, it’s odd to find a morpheme that signals something essentially in the realm of writing, like alphabetic case; and also to find that Marain still uses upper case in (some of) the same ways that English does.

I’d like to suggest, respectfully, that Liberman is being way too nice. The quoted passage from the book makes it pretty clear that what Banks means: the Marain language has the ability to indicate aurally that something is a proper name or otherwise an Important Word. But Banks calling this an “upper-case phoneme” is a basic mistake on two levels. First, he seems to have confused phonemes and morphemes, and second, he has confused a property of written language with spoken language. Liberman suggests a few interpretations of “upper-case phoneme” that would be linguistically defensible, but they’re increasingly implausible. No, what we have here is the linguistic equivalent of making the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs: an absurdity brought on by the fact that the writer didn’t know what he was talking about.

Of course, none of this really matters, and my irritation is, I’m sure, tiny compared to the irritation of a physicist trying to watch Star Trek. But it would be nice if people using linguistic vocabulary would at least try to get it right.

I find that I fully agree with David Levine’s analysis of the cultural appropriation imbroglio. Because it’s basically the same thing that I said when a similar brouhaha came up last year.

I heard about the supposed firestorm late, after the major participants had already had their say. The only thing that I want to add is that the original Elizabeth Bear post is actually a fantastic piece of advice for writing the Other.

Meme time! As suggested by csinman, here’s a brief rundown of the way that I write.

I usually start with something so small that it can’t even be called an idea. Sometimes it’s a title. (My most recent short story, The Typographer’s Dream began that way.) Sometimes it’s an image (“an old woman weeping over a river”), or a theme (“something about forgiveness”), or a more typical what-if (“what if someone stole your ability to sleep?”). These kernels by themselves are never enough for a story. I have a file where I sometimes write down my kernels, but honestly I rarely use it. Usually the kernels just sit in my head and wait to germinate.

Kernels germinate either by combining with each other, or by latching on to some snippet of plot, something I read in the news, another story I read, etc. Here I’m helped by the fact that I have a Giant Fantasy World which is vast in imagined geography and history, and which almost any kernel can find a place in. (For example, my unpublished novel An Inheritance of Stars and my recent short story The Last Free Bear are both set in the Giant Fantasy World, despite the fact that they’re very different stories with no visible connections between them.)

Once the kernel has sprouted a plot, I’m ready to think about starting to prepare to consider what I’m going to anticipate writing. This takes a long time. Even after the plot has sprouted, I’m not ready to start cultivating a story in earnest. I have to let the plot stretch and unfurl and grow some more detail. I need to know at least 75% of what happens before I sit down to write; the last 25% can come in as I’m writing. If I have less than that, the story tends wither as I get stuck not knowing what to do. (This was the fate of the last novel I started, now trunked.)

Once all of that’s in place, it’s time to sit down and write. I write my stories in plain text. Yes, the kind you can read with Notepad. Once I wrote in WordPerfect, but then I lost my WordPerfect install CD, moved to a different computer, and found I couldn’t open any of my stories. Never Again. Text is universal and eternal. However, it’s not exactly “plain” text: I actually write everything as LaTeX, with the help of the sffms LaTeX package. LaTeX and sffms are both open-source, which means that even if they did go away someday, I’m free to use and modify the versions that I have squirreled away all over my hard drives. Oh, and my text editor is Vim. I use a makefile to generate txt, rtf, html, and pdf versions from the LaTeX source, and I have Vim set up to do all that with just two keystrokes.

(This is by far the nerdiest writing setup I’ve ever heard of, but I like it.)

I usually write on the bus to and from work. My goal is 1000 words a day, but I’m happy as long as I get more than 500. I would like to write more, but my time on the bus is the only writing time I can count on getting, and that’s less than two hours per day. I figure that at 500-1000 words per day, in 6 months I can finish a novel. (That hasn’t worked out in practice, so far, but we’ll see how things go in the future.)

Once a first draft is done, I wait a little while then make a first editing pass. This is just looking for mechanical errors or really egregious writing sins. After that, I put it up on OWW and/or send it to my flesh-and-blood readers. Then I start working on something else. A few weeks (for a short story) or a few months (for a novel) later, I’ll take all the comments I got and do a really thorough edit. This is when I’ll make serious changes like removing characters, changing the order of scenes, or reworking the plot. After this, I may send it out to one or two people that I know and trust for final comments. I brush up any last issues they see—then it’s off to the cruel world.

What have I been doing? Not blogging, that’s what. Here’s some snippets:

  • Women are amazing. First, they have the ability to keep tiny people alive inside themselves for months at a time. Then they endure incredible amounts of pain to bring those people out to where they can breathe on their own. When that’s done, they shrug it off and start feeding the creatures with food they make from their own bodies. I have never been more in awe of my wife than in the past few weeks.
  • Ciprian is wonderful. He sleeps plenty, eats pretty well, and is extremely cute. The only problem is that he doesn’t always nurse as much as he needs to and has remained pretty small. But we’re addressing that as best we can.
  • I stopped writing the previous WIP, and moved on to a new one. Despite my best efforts, I just couldn’t get excited about what I was writing, which is pretty much a death knell for any creative work. I took a while off to write two short stories (which turned out very well), thinking that I would get my muse back for the novel afterwards. That was a failure: the further I got from the novel, the more I dreaded going back to it. When I got started on the thing I’m working on now, I admitted the obvious. The project is dead.
  • But I have a new project! It involves prison and vampires and zombies. And I am LOVING it. This is the most fun I’ve had writing something in a long time.
  • Today was the first day I biked to work. Well, not all the way to work. That’s like eight miles, man. I’m not about to do that every day. I’ll probably talk about this more in the future.

I picked up Stephen King’s On Writing for four bucks the other day at the bookstore. This has to be one of the funnest writing books I’ve ever read, full of interesting digressions and snappy prescriptions. Even when writing about grammar, King’s writing is taut and yummy.

But then there’s this:

With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense.

The advice is fine, but: passive tense? Passive TENSE? This error occurs not once, but twice on the same page, yet the correct “passive voice” occurs twice on the next page. The only conclusion is that King doesn’t know the difference between tense and voice, or doesn’t consider the difference important enough to bother with. And neither did any of his copy editors.

Dear Mr. King and Editors: if you are going to lecture me about grammar, you should at least understand the difference between tense, and voice. Furthermore, this difference should be so basic to you that errors of this sort leap off the page like angry toads. And while you’re at it, you might add the words mood and aspect to your vocabulary, so that you can intelligently talk about sentences like She would have been shot without flopping around like a wet fish.

This proves: most people don’t know anything about grammar, and most of the ones who claim to know something about grammar don’t know very much. They should all just read Language Log.