Communion Of Dreams


Get lucky.

“I’d rather be lucky than good.” — Lefty Gomez

* * * * * * *

In a fairly soul-baring piece by Emily Gould about the reality of struggling to be an ostensibly ‘successful’ writer, this should give even the most optimistic person pause:

In 2008 I sold a book-in-progress for $200,000 ($170,000 after commission, to be paid in four installments), which still seems to me like a lot of money. At the time, though, it seemed infinite. The resulting book—a “paperback original,” as they’re called—has sold around 8,000 copies, which is about a fifth of what it needed to sell not to be considered a flop. This essentially guarantees that no one will ever pay me that kind of money to write a book again.

 

* * * * * * *

In a discussion over on MetaFilter, successful Science Fiction author Charlie Stross had some thoughts on the above-cited essay. Here’s an excerpt from his comment:

In 2001 I had a gigantic stroke of good luck: I acquired a [good] literary agent and sold my first novel. It was about the tenth novel or novel-shaped-thing I’d written since 1990, on my own time. The advance was, eventually, $15,000 for US rights (a good first book advance in SF/F) and £3500 for UK rights. Note that a new novelist can’t get follow-on book contracts until their first book has proven itself in print — to justify the advance money the new contract will cost the publisher — so I had to keep up the freelance journalism for a few more years.

 

* * * * * * *

“A gigantic stroke of good luck.”

But Stross is a good writer, right? I mean, doesn’t he deserve his success and popularity? The meritocracy of the marketplace and all that?

Perhaps. From an NPR story the other day:

Several years ago, Princeton professor Matthew Salganik started thinking about success, specifically about how much of success should be attributed to the inherent qualities of the successful thing itself, and how much was just chance. For some essentially random reason, a group of people decided that the thing in question was really good and their attention attracted more attention until there was a herd of people who believed that it was special mostly because all the other people believed that it was, but the successful thing wasn’t in fact that special.

Salganik came up with a clever experiment, one which allowed a large number of teenagers (30,000) access to several dozen songs by promising but as yet unsigned bands. The way the experiment ran created 9 different iterations of ‘reality’, to see whether the same song would become the most popular one in each test run. They didn’t. In fact, the results were wildly divergent:

“For example, we had this song ‘Lock Down’ by the band 52 Metro,” Salganik says. “In one world this song came in first; in another world it came in 40th out of 48th. And this was exactly the same song. It’s just in these different worlds, history evolved slightly different. There were differences in the beginnings, and then the process of social influence and cumulative advantage sort of magnified those small, random initial differences.”

Now obviously there are many different things that have an impact on success and failure — money, race and a laundry list of other things — and after this work, which one person in the field described as a seminal paper, Salganik went on to do similar studies with parallel worlds that suggest that quality does have at least a limited role. It is hard to make things of very poor quality succeed — though after you meet a basic standard of quality, what becomes a huge hit and what doesn’t is essentially a matter of chance.

 

* * * * * * *

Another comment a little after Stross’s in that MeFi discussion offered a different perspective that’s worth considering:

Emily Gould’s example is crucial because she is the primary example of a writer who had succeeded. She did everything she was supposed to do: came to NYC, produced a ton of successful content for a big brand website, then continued on her own to create a huge internet presence, and then branched out into conventional media (the NYT piece) and eventually a six-figure book deal. If you think of the thousands of writers who are racking up credit card debt writing for free or almost on free all those websites we read every day, they are trying to become Emily Gould. Regardless of what they might think of her work itself, that’s the approximate career path they’re trying to follow.

So when people are glibly like, “Oh, she lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, there’s your problem,” what they’re saying is: the pinnacle of this career is one in which you will never be able to afford to live on your own, never mind have kids or financial stability or even a regular writing paycheck, the end. And that should really give us pause.

Because, sure, you can say “She should never have come to New York, she should always have kept a full time job in a different profession, etc. etc.” But to work for Gawker, she had to come to New York. To gain the kind of name recognition she has, she had to work full time posting and networking and Tweeting and, basically, working for free. And when her book failed, it didn’t fail because it was “bad” – because she wrote, in the book, the exact same way she wrote online. For better or for worse, that was what people liked. The real, applicable lesson is that the book failed because the people who read her stuff online didn’t care enough to pay for it in print.

 

* * * * * * *

“I’d rather be lucky than good.” — Lefty Gomez

I used to think that this was wrong. In fact I was quite confident that my intelligence, hard work, and focus could overcome any barrier. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of those things.

But I’ve seen too much life to still believe that. Yeah, I’d rather be lucky than good.

Back to work.

 

Jim Downey



Eat the rich. Literally.

Now comes the perfect commoditization of celebrity:

“BiteLabs grows meat from celebrity tissue samples and uses it to make artisanal salami.” So proclaims the copy on BiteLabs.org, right under an all-caps call to action: EAT CELEBRITY MEAT. The site proposes taking actual tissue samples of celebrities—specifically, James Franco, Kanye West, Jennifer Lawrence, and Ellen DeGeneres—and growing their cloned meat for use in a marketable salami blend.

* * *

“The product is indeed salami,” Kevin says. “Each salami will have roughly 30% celebrity meat and 40% lab-grown animal meats (we’re currently looking into ostrich and venison but it pork and beef are more popular in our early research). The rest will consist of fats and spices. This break-down comes from consultation with expert food designers and chefs.”

 

Admittedly, I have an … odd … sense of humor, but for the life of me I can’t figure out whether this is funnier if it is satire or if it is real.

Welcome to the future, though it’s a bit different than what we expected.

 

Jim Downey



For What It’s Worth.

There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware*

Minority Report, anyone?

When the Chicago Police Department sent one of its commanders to Robert McDaniel’s home last summer, the 22-year-old high school dropout was surprised. Though he lived in a neighborhood well-known for bloodshed on its streets, he hadn’t committed a crime or interacted with a police officer recently. And he didn’t have a violent criminal record, nor any gun violations. In August, he incredulously told the Chicago Tribune, “I haven’t done nothing that the next kid growing up hadn’t done.” Yet, there stood the female police commander at his front door with a stern message: if you commit any crimes, there will be major consequences. We’re watching you.

What McDaniel didn’t know was that he had been placed on the city’s “heat list” — an index of the roughly 400 people in the city of Chicago supposedly most likely to be involved in violent crime. Inspired by a Yale sociologist’s studies and compiled using an algorithm created by an engineer at the Illinois Institute of Technology, the heat list is just one example of the experiments the CPD is conducting as it attempts to push policing into the 21st century.

 

Jim Downey

*



This may seem familiar.

As I’ve noted over on Facebook, sometimes it feels like I am writing a Dan Brown novel for people who actually know history and can think for themselves …

… anyway, here’s an excerpt from the end of the latest chapter I thought might amuse:

“Yeah,” said Darnell, nodding. “There were a couple of places where some standing stones had been set back into the walls. These looked like they were the same sort of stone as up at Barclodiad y Gawres, and they actually had similar markings on them. But the most curious thing was a larger standing stone in the very center of the room. This was more than a meter tall, and had a sort of bulb or sphere at the top.”

“Phallic images were fairly common …” started Megan.

“Yeah, but this didn’t really come across like that. It was more like a globe on a stand, with a very distinct spiral carved into it that started at the very top and coiled down to about where the equator would be.”

“Huh.”

“Yeah. it was a different kind of stone from everything else, too. I’m not sure, but it looked to me to be the same sort of bluestone used at Stonehenge.”

“Really? That’s wild,” said Megan.

“Yeah, but the wildest part was that it felt almost … warm … to the touch. And when I did touch it, for a moment I almost thought I could hear someone talking, whispering in the distance.”

 

Heh.

 

Jim Downey



Blows against the empire.*

Last week Hugh Howey, the very successful author of the Wool series, published The Report on his AuthorEarnings site which generated more than a little attention across the publishing/self-publishing world.

I’m not going to get into a real discussion of The Report here. I’m in no way qualified to criticize the data or analysis contained in Howey’s post, and others have already done so with thoroughness. If you’re interested whether or not Howey’s post holds up to scrutiny, I’d recommend reading those.

Howey has had huge success, and seems to have managed that arc of success very well. By his own admission, he has been extremely fortunate with self-publishing, and his success is very much *not* what the vast majority of self-published authors will experience. But his success has made him something of an evangelist for self-publishing, and that is reflected in The Report.  Hence the title of this blog post — Howey very much advocates self-publishing for authors at every level, and in using the power which self-publishing has to force changes in the traditional publishing industry to benefit authors.

While I actually largely agree with Howey about the benefits of self-publishing, I thought I would offer my  own contrasting  experience as a self-published genre author who has had only moderate success.

After years of ‘close calls’ in almost getting Communion of Dreams conventionally published (including what would have been a nightmare – losing the rights to the book when a small publisher went under), in January of 2012 I self-published it.  Since then, some 27,000 copies of the book have been downloaded, and about 200 paperback copies have been sold.

Looks pretty good, right?

Well, 80% or more of those downloads were promotional. Which is to say, free.  And in addition to the paperback copies sold, I gave away about as many.

No complaints from me — this is using the tools available through Amazon, and I knew what I was doing. But that necessarily means that I didn’t earn any money off those books directly.

So in all of 2012, actual sales generated decent, but modest, income. Not enough to buy even an economy car new, but easily 3 or 4 times the advance that the Publisher Who Shall Not Be Named was going to give me. Then last year residual sales were less than $1000. If you add in my successful Kickstarter (after deducting expenses associated with that), all told I was able to stop doing most freelance writing last year and get to work on the next novel. Of course, while still trying to do enough book conservation work to stay afloat, and almost managing.

I consider this success.  It’s not Hugh Howey level success. It’s not even ‘mid-list authors a decade ago’ level sucess. It isn’t enough to live on.

But the first novel is out there, and has been well received. And I’m well on the way to having the next one out later this year.

Which is a hell of a lot better than banging my head against the gates of traditional publishing houses.

 

Jim Downey

*Reference, for those who are wondering. I’ve been considering doing a series of blog posts getting into rock music with a SF theme, looking at the development of that sub-genre over time. I still have a lot on my plate with SCW, so it’ll probably be a while, but if anyone wants to comment with suggested songs/albums/performers, feel free.



“…a carpet of shifting, building insects.”

From page 4 of Communion of Dreams:

They were, in essence, enclosing the entire planet in a greenhouse of glass fabric and golden plasteel. It was going to take generations to finish, even using mass microbots and fabricating the construction materials from the Martian sands. Tens of thousands of the specially programmed microbots, a few centimeters long and a couple wide, would swarm an area, a carpet of shifting, building insects. As each cell was finished, it was sealed, joined to the adjacent cells, and then the microbots would move on.

Those microbots play a big role in the novel, being a factor in the plot. More importantly, they are a basic part of the tech I envision for the book, accelerating our technological recovery on Earth as well as our venture into space.

Well, guess what was on the news last night:

Robot Construction Workers Take Their Cues From Termites

“We’ve created this system of multiple independent robots that build things we ask for,” says [Justin] Werfel, “and they do it more like the way insects act than the way that robots normally act.”

The robots don’t look like termites. Instead, they look more like black, mechanical beetles, about 8 inches long. They have just a few on-board sensors that let them navigate around a work site set up in a lab.

* * *

“They build things that are much larger than themselves,” says Werfel. “They climb on what they are … building to get to higher places, and they coordinate what they are doing using a tool that termites use.

“Rather than talk to one another directly, they coordinate indirectly by changing their shared environment,” he explains. “So one puts down some material, another one comes along and reacts to that material, and uses that to help it decide later whether to put more material down.”

* * *

The vision is that, someday, swarms of robots could stack up sandbags to protect against flooding, or go to Mars and build living quarters for astronauts. That’s still a long way off. But this is a proof of principle study that construction robots can work together like termites, says Hod Lipson, an engineer at Cornell University who specializes in robotics.

I love it when stuff like this happens.

 

Jim Downey



Pynchon, rephrased.*

Excerpt:

Huw reached down, picked up a glass, then held it up for Darnell to see. Then he turned to the sink in the counter behind him, turned a tap and filled the glass. Again he held it up for Darnell’s consideration. “If I tell you that only the water that comes out of this tap is safe to drink, and I control the tap, then you have to ask me for water – on my terms. Then I control you.”

“Yeah.”

“But what if you knew you could just step outside to the stream from the falls and drink that water?”

Darnell nodded. “Or if I had my own well.”

“Or even,” smiled Huw, “if you knew where there were other wells available for the free use of all.”

“Understood. But if I don’t know about the other wells or streams, or think that they’re not safe to drink from …”

“Correct,” said Huw. “I don’t have to control all the water in order to control you. I just need to distract you from noticing that there are other sources.”

 

The writing continues.

 

Jim Downey

*A small homage to this: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.”