Posted August 8, 2013
into Books by John Birmingham
If I was working for the Washington Post I'd probably be a helluva lot more relieved than concerned about Jeff Bezos buying my ass wholesale this week. Chances are the business desk will never write another decent story about Amazon's business practices, but other than that Bezos seems to be shaping up as very old fashioned hands-off proprietor in the tradition of American billionaires who buy a newspaper as a sort of charitable indulgence rather than a commercial investment.
He paid $250m for a masthead once valued at over a billion, and he probably overpaid. But he can afford it. Dude's personally worth over $25 billion. He could lose fifty or sixty million a year on the Post for the rest of his life and still die megawealthy. and that's without Amazon paying him another cent.
The thing about Bezos, he plays for the long run. He's playing for the long run in trying to monoplise the publishing industry, and probably in trying to roll over retail competitors like Costco and Walmart. He could afford to sit and wait for years, decades even, while the slow death of the old media kills of most of the legacy print competitors leaving a few globally recognised mastheads to survive as megasaurs in a radically changed ecology.
I can very easily imagine a future where a handful of brand titles like The New York Times and now the Post, become less about serving their local catchments and more about selling an increasingly rare - and thus valuable product - hard news, to a much wider market. (It's noticeable, for instance that the stories selected by the editors of the NYT for each day's live read on Audible seem very strongly slanted towards an international audience). I'd also add that there's no guarantee the Times will survive, given their parlous finances. But they're a lot better placed to do so than most papers.
Posted July 3, 2013
into Books by John Birmingham
That's right. Whoa.
Alistair Reynolds has written a Dr Who novel, and it's set in the Pertwee era, with Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart and Jo Grant and the Beardy Master. Deets at iO9, including spoilers.
"...he clearly has a lot of affection for the "UNIT family" era. But at the same time, Reynolds can't resist making things more intense and cosmic, and he winds up delving into some of the weirder contradictions of the UNIT era, including the sense that reality is always just a few threads away from unraveling, that runs underneath all the comfy "trundling around the English countryside in a yellow roadster" stuff in that era...
Reynolds is clearly having a lot of fun getting to play around with the Doctor Who universe, and he tosses out more ideas than he quite knows what to do with, somehow making the whole thing come together at the end. He's not just revamping the Pertwee era, he's making some interesting customizations to the show's mythology in general — particularly a lot of stuff about the Time Lords, and by extension the Doctor's own origins and ideals.
Reynolds brings out a lot of the weirdness that's inherent in a paramilitary organization coping with mind-bending terrors from outer space, and a lot of the threat that UNIT is dealing with this time around turns out to be existential in nature. On the TV show, UNIT soldiers deal with being frozen in time bubbles, de-aged into babies, mind-controlled by evil computers and whisked away to an antimatter universe — but Reynolds comes up with a possibly more surreal and jarring danger for UNIT to struggle against, as a result of the Master's evil-doing."
As much as I struggled thru a few passages of Chasm City, I'll be making my way from this place directly to Audible to see if there's an audiobook. And if not, an ebook.
11 Responses to ‘The Alastair Reynolds book we should have read’
Posted June 27, 2013
into Books by John Birmingham
Last year was a dark time in publishing. The year before even worse. The Australian retail market contracted by 25%, mostly due to the collapse of Borders, which had itself driven a number of independents and smaller franchises to the wall.
There are glimmers of improvement about though. The end of Amazon's effective monoply on ebooks is one, and the return of genre, especially sci-fi another.
Sci Fi has been deader than Elvis as a publishing industry segment for a long time. A few authors make a good, not great, living. But otherwise the era of spaceships and big fucking ray guns was judged to be over.
Until punters started buying SF titles in bigger and bigger and ever accelerating numbers in electronic form. It seems that like comic books and short stories, genre and SF in particular have found something of a 'mass niche' on tablets and ereaders.
There are multiple theories for the genre dominance in digital publishing, including the appeal of anonymity offered by e-reader devices, which don’t display the cover of a potentially embarrassing book for all the world to see. As Antonia Senior wrote in The Guardian last year, ”I’m happier reading [trashy fiction] on an e-reader, and keeping shelf space for books that proclaim my cleverness.”
But the digital delivery system also offers immediacy and ease of access for material that often is serialized and written to make you want to know what happens next, as soon as possible. Liate Stehlik, senior vice president and publisher at Harper Collins, subscribes to that idea, at least partially. Genre fans, she says, became “early adopters” of the digital format because e-books are the optimal format “for people who want to read a lot of books, quickly and frequently. Digital has replaced the paperback, certainly the paperback originals. I think the audience that gravitated to eBooks first really was that voracious reader, reading for entertainment, reading multiple books in a month across multiple genres.”
For both Random House and Harper Collins, moving to a digital-first publishing model not only offers a higher return on investment for genre publishing, but also opens the door for those publishers to experiment in a much more cost-effective way than print. “It’s not that we couldn’t publish these books before,” Dobson said, “but [now] that a certain consumer has migrated online, and the ease of buying these books has grown that consumer base substantially.”
This sits well with my own judgment that the industry will shake itself out into two fields over the next ten years, with disposable fiction migrating mostly into digital. Doesn't mean you won't ever see a hardback or even paperback SF title in future. But most of those titles will probably be consumed on iPads and Kindles.
Posted June 16, 2013
into Books by John Birmingham
My thanks to Professor Bryan Gaensler for delivering up this weekend's freebie read, an edited chapter from his awesome book of thinky science things about the universe. Yes. The whole fucking universe. Today's extract is a roaring piece about the loudest sound never heard, and Extreme Cosmos is chockers with stuff like this that kids and teen geeks in particular would love.
It's probably also worth bookmarking for Father's Day
Posted June 12, 2013
into Books by John Birmingham
Got a mess of my own making to clean up today, so I thought I'd reach back into the archive for this one, a review of Cell by da King. It got a relevence refresh with news that a movie adaptation is back on track and scheduled to begin shooting later this year. John Cusack is set to star. Given the success of The Walking Dead and the anticipation surrounding Under the Dome, it's almost a lay down certainty to reach the multiplexes sometime next year. I remember this as being one the creepiest King books ever, and viscerally horrifying with it.
The supermarkets and mega stores like Borders will probably discount Stephen King's latest novel, Cell, using it as a loss leader to drag punters into the shop. You might even get it for less than twenty bucks, but don't imagine for a second that's all you're going to pay. There'll be a heavy toll levied on anyone who reads this thing from cover to cover; vivid nightmares that wreck your sleep for however long it takes you finish and get the creepy thing out of your system
As with the best of King's work, Cell comes with a simple premise. At 3.03pm, US Eastern Standard Time, some sort of Pulse runs through every mobile phone in the world. Anyone using their natty little Erricson at that time goes violently insane. And as the author points out, who doesn't own a mobile nowadays? As millions of zombie's possessed by their batphones suddenly turn on the rest of the population, those not affected at first begin to ring friends and family to warn them or to find out what's happening, and they too get zapped by Satan's Own telco. Only a small percentage of people remain unaffected, either because they don't have mobiles, or they stay off them long to realise that they are the source of the problems.
Keeping such a global disaster personalised is the role of Clay Riddell, 'a young man of no particular importance to history', a graphic artist caught in Boston during the Pulse. The book follows his attempts to make it home, a hundred miles away, to his twelve year old son, for whom he had only just purchased a mobile phone. Clay throws in his lot with an ensemble cast of suppporting survivors; notably Alice, a traumatised teenager and Tom, a confirmed bachelor of much less than heroic stature, who turns out to be one of the most sympathetically drawn gay men you'll ever find in pulp fiction.
Possibly the goriest of Stephen King's books so far, it won't be for everybody. Never one to resile from painting humanity in the worst light, recent events seem to have darkened his view of us even further. The book is current enough to include references to Hurricane Katrina, and the aftermath of that disaster informs the shocking and occasionally sickening portrait of a world in collapse which takes up the first part of the narrative.
With it's legions of blank-eyed, shuffling undead unpeople, Cell quickly reveals itself as a zombie horror story, in the style of George Romero, one of King's favorite auteurs. And like Romero, King uses the iconic figure of the zombie for satircal as well as scarifying purposes. When the phone crazies, as they are quickly dubbed, begin to exhibit flocking behaviour, and march in jerky lockstep to nearest mega mall to strip it clean of rapidly decaying foodstuffs, they recall scenes from Romero's Dawn of Dead, which was as much a commentary on American materialism as it was a low budget splatterfest.
As usual, King's story is loaded with references to the world of real things – a phrase of which he is very fond – and while some of these merely provide verisimilutde, others point to a deeper intent on the writer's part. The opening scenes are purposely drawn in the shadow of 9/11, and Al Qaeda's mass casualty attack haunts both the action and the thoughts of the main characters throughout. King is also The King however, and a world full of flesh eating zombies isn't nearly interesting enough to keep him at the keyboard. He amps up the story wattage with a developing subplot about the victims of the Pulse beginning to act as a single organism with weirdly otherworldly Stephen Kingly-type super powers.
It might all sound like a load of old cods, but all of his books would, when viewed in blurb form. King pulls them off because he has that rare facility of making you believe it could happen. I challenge anyone to read this book and feel comfortable making a phone call right afterwards. Indeed, like all true art, the Cell lingers in your mind, having its greatest effect when the immediate experience of the work is over. It's like a depth charge, sinking deeper and deeper into your subconcious and detonating days afterwards in the form of some very unpleasant dreams.
It can and will be read on different levels. As simple freak show carnography. As a satire on commercial culture. A homage to Romero. Even as a reflection on the war in Iraq. (One character makes this link explicit). For me though, it marks a stunning return to form of the heaviest hitter in the world of the airport novel. If you don't mind being pursued through your dreams by a ravening host of zombies, this one is for you.
Posted May 20, 2013
into Books by John Birmingham
Nobody believes you when you say, "I don't read the reviews," and they probably shouldn't if you're just some baby author, gamely pretending to give less than a shit about the cruel and unusual judgment of others. But eventually, as a writer, or any kind of public performer I guess, you do stop reading them because ... you just stop caring. Really. Either the punters liked the book and bought it, or they didn't. It doesn't mean you would not be wounded by a harsh word. But eventually, you don't bother to seek them out as you once may have.
Mainstream reviewers in the print media judge often titles by criteria that shouldn't apply to them. It can make for an entertaining read, for instance when somebody who's been forced to grapple with Dan Brown takes out their resentment and superiority complex on the poor dumb rich bastard. But it's not going to affect Brown's sales, or more importantly, his writing. He'll just keep doing what he does and banking the royalties.
The other reason I don't read reviews is that having done my fair share of reviewing for money I know how fucking dodgy and unprofessional are many of the published reviews in the mainstream press. I avoid writing them now because there just isn't the money in it to justify my time. A hundred and fifty bucks for a week's work? No thanks. And it is a week's full time work to do it properly. I've always believed that a proper review demands at least two read thru's – the second one as you take notes – before you even put pen to paper. There are pro reviewers who work that way, but not many, and they are almost all fulltimers at a broadsheet.
But just because you read a regular 'name' reviewer in a broadsheet newspaper doesn't mean you're getting a better review than you would from a committed amateur at their blog. I've known a few fuckwits who simply reviewed the cover art and the blurb. Met one or two who boasted of trashing a book for purely personal reasons, or because they were simply paid to by a media outlet with a grudge. It's never happened to me, but it has happened to a few unfortunate authors I know of, most famously Matt Reilly. (And again, seriously, to what end? It's not going to affect his sales or his writing technique).
No one dreams of being a book reviewer when he grows up. You might dream of writing poems or novels or essays or even, if you are perennially picked last for teams in gym class, literary criticism (“We don't want Robbins, you can have an extra player”; “We don't want him, either!”) These forms have their glamour, even if only the novelist is much prized by the united malls of America. But as Samuel Johnson almost said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote book reviews, except for money.” ...
Most reviews are merely serviceable, because reviewing is a service industry. Readers want to know whether they should read a book or skip it. Some publications append letter grades to their book reviews, a development I view somewhat as William F. Buckley regarded the Second Vatican Council. Deadlines are deadly to the polish of prose. Daily or weekly reviewing requires that something be said about works of which often there is not much to be said beyond "Read something else."
I'm kind of curious, given what a sophistumucated, worldly readership we gots here at the Burgerstand, just how many of you do read book reviews?
40 Responses to ‘On reviewing for money, love and hatred.’