Tag Archives: Hayden Trenholm

Bundoran Press – On Distribution and Print vs E-book Sales

In this article, Hayden Trenholm, publisher of Bundoran Press, Canadian Publisher of Science Fiction, shares his personal journey in the book business. Whether publishing with small or large press or self-publishing, distribution is always a concern and Hayden candidly shares his experiences. Print or ebook sales, which is more lucrative? Hayden’s comments may surprise or depress you. Ace Jordyn

Personal Journeys in the Book Business by Hayden Trenholm

Selling books is hard; selling anything is hard but books are harder because it is the only product that stores can return for a full refund (or credit – though that only applies to big publishers). This practice started in the 1930s when publishers were looking for a way to kick start book sales after the war. The mass market paperback was relatively new and was designed to be printed cheap and distributed widely. To encourage book sellers – a notoriously conservative lot – to take the risk, the books could be returned for a credit against future sales.

This worked pretty well for publishers, who in those days mostly distributed their own books. They didn’t actually have to give money back – they simply took a loss in the future, which as any economist will tell you, is a discounted loss.

It doesn’t quite work that way anymore. As the world became more complex, sales processes became more specialized. Publishers outsourced their warehouses to distribution companies. Gradually those distribution companies developed their own salesforces (on top of the marketing departments of big publishers) and took over marketing for medium and small publishers.

And of course they took their cut of the sales – which would be okay if they also didn’t charge fees for every transaction they undertake. There is a fee when they send the book to the store and another larger fee for when it comes back. And if the books stop moving, they charge you a fee for storing them and a different fee to dispose of them or return them.

Generally you are told you should budget 30% for returns, though the distributor assures you they will do everything possible to keep it below that. But what if they sell your books to the wrong stores – such as stores that don’t sell a lot of science fiction, or stores who won’t keep new or relatively unknown books on their shelves for more than a few weeks? Returns can quickly rise above 30% and, with all the associated fees, it is possible to actually lose money through distribution.

Which is what happened.

I could see that it was coming and I have thought of an alternative – two, in fact. One would be to find a new distributor. There are several out there but getting them to take you on is not as simple as asking. You need to have a certain size back catalog, you need to publish a minimum number of titles each year, you need a certain size print run.

Requirements vary, of course, but obviously, the bigger the distributor (access to more stores, larger sales force, and so on), the stiffer the entry requirements. And returns are still a problem. Still, I’m looking into the possibilities.

Not all distribution companies are created equally and some are as hard to work with for storeowners as they are for publishers. Complex accounting processes and inefficient shipping practices can lead stores to refuse to work with certain distribution companies.

I’ve talked to a few book sellers about the problem and they either suggested a smaller, but reliable, mostly Canadian firm (there are several) or to do self-distribution. If authors can self-publish, why can’t publishers self-distribute?

So, for at least the interim, that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve created a catalog that includes all the backlist (and announces the titles of upcoming publications) and I’ve started sending it out.

My first experience was a good one. Last August at When Words Collide (which was a great success – we won an Aurora Award and had a successful triple book launch), I approached a couple of regular book sellers with the catalog. One took the catalog and the other took some books. So while supplies last, Calgary readers can buy Bundoran Books from the Sentry Box. Since then, the Yellowknife Book Cellar in the Northwest Territories and Pat Flewelling’s traveling bookstore, MythHawker have bought into the system. Negotiations continue with several other bookstores.

The secret – deep discounts for the book sellers (more than the traditional 40%) and no returns for the publisher. Even with shipping costs I expect to make more money than I did with my big American distributor. And I certainly won’t lose money. Obviously this approach is unlikely to work with the big chain bookstores and it definitely won’t work on Amazon – but it might actually result in more books sold which will be good for both me and for the authors I publish.

E-books

Like most traditional publishers, I publish e-books of all the books I also publish by print. I’ve even published one stand-alone novella. Some have sold okay – mostly when both I and the author independently promote them – but none have been spectacular. One exception is my anthology, Blood and Water, which sold a lot of copies by being included in a book bundle with nine other Aurora-winning or nominated books. Recently, another of Bundoran Press’ books, Children of Arkadia by M.Darusha Wehm, did very well in another book bundle, this one sponsored by SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America). With two more book bundles in the works this year, change may be in the air.

Which is a good thing. I’ve done all the usual things to promote e-book (and print sales): Twitter, Facebook, (including ads), Goodreads, blogs, manipulating the Amazon algorithm, but the results have up to now been so-so. A few months ago, I signed up with an ebook distribution to spread our market beyond Amazon and KOBO. Initial results look good – a doubling or tripling of our monthly sales – but time will tell if that is sustainable.

But it will have to be flashy to match what happened with Stars Like Cold Fire by Brent Nichols, which in its first two weeks sold more units than all the other titles (except for the aforementioned Blood and Water) sold in the previous six months. It’s not like it has become a best seller in its category (Space Opera) – although apparently that doesn’t mean what you might think anyway– but it has continued to tick along very nicely and is still outselling every other title – which bodes well for the sequel that is coming out in August. Neither Brent nor I are likely to get rich – but you never know. Maybe a year from now, we’ll be referring to Brent as the new Hugh Howie. And I’ll have sold my company to Random House.

Speaking of e-books, the debate continues to rage over which is doing better – e-books or print books. Some would have you believe that  e-books are in decline and print books are on the rise and sales figures would suggest they are right. Total e-book sales have fallen since 2013, while print books have shown a modest but steady increase.

Others would point out that e-book weakness is largely because there wasn’t a breakout YA novel in 2014 or 2015 – which shows how a single author like J.K.Rowling can move the market more than 10,000 other lesser selling authors. Pricing may also be a factor with traditional publishers raising e-book prices while the growing number of indie publishers have kept prices low. Still, the decline in sales of dedicated e-book readers like Kindle must be an area of concern.

And at the same time, the rise in print sales is almost entirely due to the recent fad of adult colouring books. That’s right. Colouring books. Maybe I need to produce a book of colour-it-yourself space ships and alien landscapes.

My own view is that – publishing is a tough business and few people are going to make a decent living at it. Most people who make a living as a writer start out being supported by family, friends, spouses, and lousy part-time jobs. Or if they live in a country that values the arts – by public arts granting agencies. For Canadians, things recently got a little better – but it’s still a rough go. Here are the median individual incomes in Canada. If you are doing better than that as a writer – count yourself lucky.

Still, we persevere – both as writers and as publishers. After all what else can we do?

Yeah, I know get a haircut and get a real job

Hayden Trenholm is an award-winning playwright, novelist and short story writer. His short fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies and on CBC radio. His first novel, A Circle of Birds, won the 3-Day Novel Writing competition in 1993; it was recently translated and published in French. His trilogy, The Steele Chronicles, were each nominated for an Aurora Award. Stealing Home, the third book, was a finalist for the Sunburst Award. Hayden has won four Aurora Awards – twice for short fiction and twice for editing anthologies. He purchased Bundoran Press in 2012 and is its managing editor. He lives in Ottawa with his wife and fellow writer, Elizabeth Westbrook-Trenholm.

 

 

Detective Science Fiction

I love mysteries and crime stories especially when they’re set in the future or on other worlds because they not only solve crimes, the good ones also explore the relationship between humans and technology and maybe even with other races. That combination makes Detective Science Fiction is the perfect genre mish-mash!

What are detective science fiction stories?
They’re detective stories set in the future, on earth, other worlds or somewhere in outer space. The detectives need to be observant, to investigate, to question suspects, work within the laws (or sometimes outside them), report to superiors, interact with segments of society. While the detective does his job, the reader experiences a future society through the detective’s eyes. It’s a very up close and personal view of the world.

Why does this mash-up make for great crime fiction?
Technology changes but human nature doesn’t. Despite our technological advances, crime is still part of our world. Theft, murder, white collar, blue collar crimes, crimes against humanity, deviant crimes, commercial crimes, drugs, crimes in international law (slavery, genocide, war crimes, piracy, for example), and the list is endless. In writing about the future, it forces us to consider our lives in the present. What if technology changes and we can read the brain or the psyche to predict if people will commit crimes? What are the ramifications? What happens when we break the laws of alien cultures? What are frontier crime and justice like on a newly colonized world? What happens when an android commits murder? Android or robot detectives, even if they’re good at their job, what perils do they face? What constitutes crime in the future? How are murder mysteries solved in the future – great sleuthing or with advanced technology?

Why do they work? Isn’t science fiction supposed to be about the science?
Detective science fiction works because detectives are like scientists in that they question, they need to know how things work, they explore, they follow clues. But detectives need to find the truth, and to do that they must dig into the corners of society, personalities, and political structures. They need to know a little about everything just enough to ask the next question or suffer the consequences if they don’t. In short, detectives in science fiction are the best tour guide to both future technologies and the resulting human condition. Technology usually has a huge role to play in a detective sci fi and for that reason I greatly admire the authors who go that extra step to know their worlds well.

What are key features of this genre?
For me, it’s a toss-up between technology and characterization. Both are essential and both are the reason I keep reading detective science fiction. The best ones have great plot twists and turns, and are sprinkled with red herrings. As a reader, it’s easy to immerse myself into a society with this combination of plot, technology and characterization. However, just as with commercial crime and mystery stories, there’s a wide range of styles or sub genres within this genre mish mask.

There are cyberpunk detective stories where the element of human/computer relationship plays more of a role than characterization and plot. Then there’s hard boiled noir detective science fiction where in a dark, futuristic society, a detective (usually a gun-slinging male) must solve a crime written in the style of American noir of the 1930 and 40s. There are some cozy mysteries in that the crime is committed off scene and there is little violence but it’s heavy on the setting, the detective’s character, but the detective isn’t usually laid back citizen, like Miss Marple although there may be lots of deduction and little violence.

But the general feature of a good detective science fiction, no matter the subgenre, is the world building, the protagonist’s interaction in that world and the morality tale that crime stories evoke.

Book recommendations:
If you haven’t read any detective science fiction, beware – there’s been a lot written but not all of it has been categorized as detective science fiction, it’s still in the larger science fiction category. And, it’s not brand new either! Here’s the classic story from Isaac Asimov himself of why he wrote his first detective science fiction. This led to him pioneering the human-robot buddy cop genre.

“[John] Campbell had often said that a science fiction mystery story was a contradiction in terms; that advances in technology could be used to get detectives out of their difficulties unfairly, and that the readers would therefore be cheated. I sat down to write a story that would be a classic mystery and that would not cheat the reader — and yet would be a true science-fiction story. The result was The Caves Of Steel.”

The Caves of Steel is a must read.

To date, Good Reads has over 100 books listed in its Science Fiction Detective category. BestScienceFictionBooks.com contains a stellar list. It’s worth checking these lists. So for this reason, I won’t be listing the popular and classic books like the “Gil Hamilton” stories by Larry Niven. Instead, I’ve got 5 authors and novels you may not be familiar with but are worth reading:

Hydrogen SteelHydrogen Steel by K.A. Bedford
When top homicide inspector Zette McGee is called out of her mysterious retirement to help Kell Fallow, a desperate former android accused unjustly of murdering his wife and children, she knows she has to help him. (This is powerfully written, with lots of great world building and much intrigue with sabotage, spies and nasty infections. The consequences of and ramifications of artificial intelligence and artificial consciousness are dealt with superbly.)

Ultra Thin ManThe Ultra Thin Man by Patrick Swenson
In the twenty-second century, a future in which mortaline wire controls the weather on the settled planets and entire refugee camps drowse in drug induced slumber, no one –alive or dead, human or alien—is quite what they seem. When terrorists crash the moon Coral into its home planet, it is up to Dave Crowell and Alan Brindos, contract detectives, to solve an interstellar conspiracy or face interplanetary consequences. (Clever title. Clever concept. To say anymore would be to spoil it. Sorry.)

transient cityTransient City by Al Onia
On a distant mining colony at the far reaches of outer space, vast cities crawl across the surface of a desolate planet looking for valuable minerals while their citizens struggle to survive. Victor Stromboli, a professional crime scene witness, is nearly crippled by the brutal memories he can neither control nor forget. Now he has to solve the mystery of a missing corporate executive who happens to be married to the one love of Victor’s life. (Crawling cities! What a cool concept especially on frontier planets where the characters are strong and quirky and come with really unique idiosyncrasies!)

Red PlanetRed Planet Blues by Rob Sawyer
P.I. Alex Lomax works the mean streets of New Klondike, the domed Martian city that sprang to life in the wake of the booming fossil market. He plies his trade among the failed prospectors, corrupt cops, and ‘transfers’—folks wealthy enough to upload their consciousness into near immortal android bodies. Then, he lands a cold case—a decades old murder of Weingarten and O’Reilly, the men who first discovered evidence of life on Mars. (This was a delightful gumshoe romp which dealt with the implications of transferring human consciousness into android bodies, thus making humans, albeit wealthy ones, nearly immortal.)

Defining Diana 2Defining Diana by Hayden Trenholm
Found naked and alone in a locked room, the beautiful woman was in perfect health, except she was dead. It’s 2043 and much has changed: nuclear war, biotechnology and all-powerful corporations have transformed the world. Now science is taking DNA manipulation to new levels. Superintendent Frank Steel is an old-fashioned cop who handles the bizarre and baffling cases no one else can solve. He knows the money, murders, missing persons and gruesome body shops are connected and it starts with the girl. (This novel creeped me out partly because it’s set in a village not far from where I live but also because of the nature of the crime. What would a cyborg future look like, not only with cyborgs and what they’re capable of doing, but what crimes come with that kind of existence?)

Science Fiction ““ Our Conversation with the Future

Guest Post by Hayden Trenholm

SONY DSCFor me, fiction is about a conversation we have with each other and with the world; science fiction is a conversation we have with the future. No matter how far away in space and time, science fiction is in the realm of the possible – decisions that we take, individually and collectively, will either bring that future about or prevent it from happening. Fantasy, on the other hand, is in the form of a wish, or even a dream, about worlds that never have and never could exist. No decision I make can defeat Voldemort or destroy the One Ring.

More than that, science fiction relies on the laws and principles of science both for world building and for problem solving. That means cause and effect, the conservation of matter and energy, measurability and certainty. The laws of physics can’t be broken on a whim and mysterious and mystical “forces’ can’t be called on to save the day. Star Trek (“I kenna break the laws o’ physics, Captain”) is science fiction; Star Wars (“May the Force be with you, Luke”) is fantasy.

So to write good SF you need a basic understanding of, and interest in, science. Make an error in the science and someone – probably an editor but certainly a fan – will point it out to you. If science bores you and fact-checking is an abomination, maybe writing science fiction is not for you. If you feel your grade 11 chemistry doesn’t quite ground you enough, try some of the Writing Science Fiction Series books from Writers’ Digest. Edited by people like Ben Bova (both a scientist and science fiction writer), these will give you lots of basic information on space travel or world-building. Robert Zubrin has some good books on near-Earth space travel and Michio Kaku’s “Physics of the Impossible“ lays out the law of what can and cannot be accomplished – and when.Hayden Steel

Having said that, one probably shouldn’t be dogmatic about it. A lot of the fun in writing science fiction lies in exploring the gaps between what we do and don’t know. In “The Steele Chronicles,” my trilogy of books from Bundoran Press, I read a lot about “junk DNA,’ genetic causality and the theory of mind-machine interfaces to ground my near-future police procedurals. Discovering that there were several as yet unproven theories about the function of junk or inactive DNA, I was able to pick the one that best suited the story I wanted to tell.

That’s the other thing to remember – science fiction is first and foremost fiction. While the science background is critical, you still have to tell a good story with strong and interesting characters. The story also has to be about something. Defining Diana was, for me, about the nature of human identity: who we are and, more importantly, why are we who we are. By addressing that theme, I could look at issues of choice and destiny – free will versus programming -in self-definition.

defining dianaThe choice of story is, of course, impacted by the genre. Mystery novels have to have a mystery (usually a murder) as the core problem to be solved and romance has a broken relationship at its heart. In science fiction, science and technology are more than simply background, they are central to the main conflict. The main character may not be a scientist but the problem they face must be grounded in something that is essentially “scientific’ in nature. Isaac Asimov used to say the way to tell if a story is science fiction is to remove the science from the story; if it’s still a story it wasn’t SF to begin with.

Of course, it isn’t all about physics. As I already mentioned, my novels were mostly immersed in biology and theories of mind. On the other hand, my short stories have often revolved around political or anthropological questions. In my five Arakan universe stories, I wondered what power ideas – especially those imported from “alien societies’ – might have to change a culture. In that case the alien society was human and the cultural element was music. But, of course, what I was really talking about was how multiculturalism might change the way we live and the values we have.

There are, of course, many sub genres of science fiction, each with their own rules and regulations. So-called “mundane’ SF demands stories confine themselves to known facts and well-grounded theories (remember: in science, theories are never proven, merely not disproven yet). Post-singularity science fiction posits a point at which we can no longer predict the future because advances (usually in the area of artificial intelligence) have outstripped the ability of the human mind to understand them. Space opera routinely permits faster-than-light travel without worrying too much about the physics that might be involved – though most writers try to give it some kind of scientific gloss involving black holes, anti-matter or wormholes.

Nonetheless, they all have those basic things I listed at the heart of the story – cause and effect, adherence to the basic laws of physics, and a reliance on reason and human action to get things done. Even in the most pessimistic post-apocalyptic novels, where all our problems (environmental, political, economic) may have arisen from the misuse of technology, science fiction will still rely on science to find a way through, rather than falling back on a mystical return to nature or the power of prayer.

To learn more about my views on writing and other topics, visit my web-site at www.haydentrenholm.com or my blog at http://bundoransf.wordpress.com

Choosing A Genre or Mashing-Up Genres ““ What’s it All About?

 I read three well written novels novels recently and wasn’t sure what genre they belonged in. They were set in the future – one was set in a dystopian Calgary with some really cool cyborg people, another was set on Mars where people had the option of having their consciousness transferred into android bodies, and the third was set in another solar system with interstellar travel and neat technologies and alien beings. Science fiction seemed logical as they were all in the future, but their telling and basic elements were much more traditional.
defining diana
If mystery had a future-crime sub-genre, all would fit that category beautifully. Rob Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues has a delightful, laid back gum shoe detective. Defining Diana by Hayden Trenholm (see his blog on writing science fiction later this month) is a solid crime novel that’s gritty, hard and gruesome when it needs to be. K.A. Bedford’s Hydrogen Steel has a retired homicide inspector struggling to save humanity while she struggles to accept her own physical reality. These are three well-executed detective stories marketed as science fiction.

The fact is, when we write, we use elements from several genres in our stories. Mystery in science fiction. Thriller in fantasy. Romance in steampunk. The mash ups are as varied as the imagination! And yet, some work better than others. Why? The magic happens when the author understands the elements that make each genre unique. For example, a cozy mystery like Rex Stout’s adventures with Nero Wolfe, could have easily fallen into the annals of “literature’ as Stout deftly captures the voice of the time by using strong characters and a well-defined milieu. Yet, his stories are, first and foremost, mysteries and his novels are marketed as such.

ShanghaiSteam-110px-150dpi-C8In all four examples, it is each author’s ability to understand the genres they are mashing that gives their work depth and memorable voice. Most importantly, their writing is a joy to read as it pleases the intellect on many levels. Making it fun for the reader, transporting him to worlds he never dreamed of – that’s the true test of knowing your genre well and choosing mash-ups wisely. I recently had the privilege to edit Shanghai Steam , an anthology with a unique mash-up of steampunk and wuxia. Reading the submissions and editing the selected stories was fun because authors who understood the subtleties of both genres created distinct worlds, plots and characters. Fun, gripping, mind-blowing – that’s what it’s all about for writers and readers.

Do you choose to write in one specific genre or do you use a mash-up? Every novel has elements of several genres and the question is one of degree and desired market placement. Is it science fiction or mystery? That’s determined when you decide the character of your novel – what its unique voice will be. It’s no different than creating well-rounded, deep characters as was discussed in many of February’s posts. Frank Morin, in his post Complex Characters reminded us of Shrek thinking he is like an onion – layered. In his post Platonic Male-Female Relationships in Fiction (a.k.a. “The Glue”), Evan Braun compared the complexities of romance against friendship as he discussed how each creates a different dynamic in character interaction. What is your story’s dynamic? How will the genres you choose relate to one another? Is your story more mystery or science fiction? Which genre will have the stronger voice? Like Shrek’s onion, how many layers deep will you go into each genre? What blend provides the best milieu for telling your story? How will your characters and your readers react? What will you choose?

March’s posts will help you better understand how each genre can give your story its unique voice and character. We’ll also have posts comparing genre writing to literature, choosing which genres to mash and how to market them, and there’ll also be a case for not worrying about any of it. There will be posts on specific genres including horror, steampunk, fantasy, romance, science fiction and many others. What makes each genre unique? What makes it work?

Choose your story’s voice and character and have fun writing as you peel back the layers!

Let’s see now … Miss Marple in dystopian 2081? A western horror? Steampunk space opera? Romantic military SF? Historical fantasy thriller? Urban fantasy folktale? So many to choose from…