Saturday, May 29, 2010

Paperback Tailspin

I haven't quite known how to say this, so I guess I'll just say it: the paperback sales on Sunborn have been terrible. The worst I've ever seen. Distribution is awful—the book isn't even being stocked by many bookstores I would have expected to carry it, like Borders or my local Barnes and Noble superstore. Or if they carried it, they stocked one copy. Not six or eight, like in old days, but one. How can you launch a book like that?  And why is this happening?

The reasons are legion. And these are just the ones I know about.

For starters, there was a long interruption in my output, and the first three books of the Chaos Chronicles were long out of print. I tried to address this by offering free downloads—and that certainly helped stimulate interest, but clearly not enough. At the time the paperback was published, I was in a family crisis and slow off the mark in doing the usual promotion I would have done. Worse, promotion from the publisher was indifferent, and their declining to bring the first three books back into print spelled trouble.

These are the obvious reasons, but not the only ones.

According to my editor, slumping sales are bedeviling a lot of authors and a lot of mass-market paperback books. The biggest factor is that the distribution of paperbacks has gone to hell—not just in bookstores, but in places like newsstands and drugstores. There used to be hundreds of wholesalers, each knowing their own territories—the guys who drove the trucks and put books on the racks, and who knew from experience what kinds of books tended to sell where. Now it's all consolidated, with a few huge outfits covering most of the business. And they're doing it by computer from central locations, making decisions that literally make or break national distribution of a book. Books that once might have found a modest but respectable audience are now cut out of the loop; they simply are not carried by the wholesalers that would get them into points of sale outside the traditional bookstore. As a result, what was once a major avenue of sales—to the casual browser who came into a convenience store looking for soap or a candy bar and stopped to thumb books on a rack—is now limited to the guaranteed bestsellers. So, you can find a book like Sunborn easily enough online, but only if you're looking for it. Your bookstore can order it, but only if you know to ask for it. But many potential new readers will never see it

Did my posting of free downloads help or hurt? It definitely helped make a lot more people aware of the books. Did it sell books or prevent sales? Will ebook sales make up some of the difference in paperback sales? Without a parallel universe to use as a control, there's just no way to know. 

"How can I help?" I hear you saying. (Maybe I'm imagining. But let's assume I'm hearing it.) One thing you can do, of course, is to head to your local bookshop if you haven't already and pick up a copy—if not for yourself, then for a friend or relative. Another is simply to encourage your local bookstore to carry the book. If you special-order it, that's one sale. If you can get them to stock a few copies, that could be several sales and a ping on their radar. And tell people. Word of mouth is the most effective single way to promote a book. And only you can do that.

I don't intend to sit around doing nothing but complain. I'm in the process of rethinking and retooling promotion for the future. More and more these days, that job is left solely to the author (unless you're already a bestseller and don't actually need the help.) I have a bunch of ideas, and I'll be writing about them from time to time and will definitely be interested in your feedback.

"The girl doesn't, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the "curiosity" level." —from the rejection slip for Diary of Anne Frank

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Whither NASA?

I haven't written yet about my reaction to the proposed change of course for the U.S. space program. To be honest, the Obama proposal threw me for a loop. In case you just got back from Antarctica and haven't heard, President Obama's budget proposal for NASA was a shocker: When the space shuttle is retired at the end of this year, the plan is to turn responsibility for manned launch-to-orbit over to the private sector. They're working on it, they say they can do it—and cheaper—so let's turn 'em loose to do it. Buy seats on the Russian Soyuz in the interim. And that multi-billion-dollar Constellation program to send astronauts back to the Moon? Cancel it. It's over budget and troubled, and was never properly funded to begin with. So what's NASA's job, then? Plan for the future; invest in new technologies; go into deep space to visit an asteroid, then aim for Mars—say, by the mid 2030s. Total funding to increase, but get NASA out of the routine business of space transportation. For one good analysis, look at Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait's comments.

There's a lot to like in the Obama proposal—though after watching Atlantis launch in person, I'm not sure there's anything "routine" about launching humans into orbit. Putting that aside, though, what's good about the plan? Well, long-range planning, with a genuine vision for exploration, is always good. While I believe we have unfinished business on the Moon, visiting an asteroid is also a terrific idea. We might have to move one of those suckers one of these days, to keep it from snuffing us like the dinosaurs; furthermore, we might find ourselves mining the asteroids for metals like nickel and iron, for future space construction. Time to start learning how.

What's not to like? Well, laying off a highly skilled and experienced workforce, for one thing. Under the Obama proposal, a lot of those people who know how to put things into space will be out of jobs in a year or two—a frightening loss of human infrastructure. Some might find jobs in the private companies like SpaceX, who hope to step into the gap. But many won't. And what about the astronaut corps? Have we trained them, only to turn them out? Are we abdicating our hard-earned leadership role in space, as Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan think? It could happen. Our astronauts are split on the question. And what about this long-range thinking? That's okay to talk about today, but what happens when the next administration comes in? Will they want to make their own mark, and change directions yet again? One space expert I talked to said that was his biggest concern. In fact, according to him, the whole reason we don't already have a replacement for the shuttle is because we keep changing course every four years.

SpaceX Dragon cargo/crew module, artist's conception

I picked some brains while I was at the Nebulas. One writer I talked to, someone who's a big space booster, and definitely on the conservative side politically, said, "I don't much like Obama. But I do think his proposal has a lot of merit." That took me aback, as did another person on the inside, who said, maybe losing all that experience won't be all bad. Maybe new blood will be willing to try new ideas.

So what do I think? I'm not sure I have enough information to carve out a position. I'd love to see the shuttle keep flying a little longer, while we design a replacement. But the spare parts lines have already been shut down; the business of retiring the thing is already well underway. To reverse that could cost billions. Am I ready to depend on other countries to supply the space station we've built at such a cost? I hate the thought.  Can Elon Musk and SpaceX, and similar smaller companies, step into the breach? Maybe. We'll have a better idea when the Falcon 9 test rocket launches later this year. But what's Congress going to do? That's as hard to predict as the weather. Stay tuned. It's going to be interesting.

SpaceX Falcon 9 static fire on launch pad

"Where there is no vision, the people perish." — Proverbs 29:18

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Atlantis Launch Video

Here's our view of the space shuttle Atlantis launching last Friday for its last flight, STS-132. The videography might best be described as "earnest" rather than "excellent," but it's still a pretty fair approximation of the view we had. Except that everything in real life was brighter, and louder. And five days later, I still tingle when I think about it.

I actually wanted to cut that down a little more, but I got tired of the crappy video software crashing all the time, so I gave up and posted it the way it was.

My Launchpad Workshop and SF colleague Eugie Foster took a pretty neat video with her Android cellphone, and you can see that one one here:

And if you want to get away from the science fiction crowd experience and see what some folks with real equipment and skill took, here are a couple of the best that I found:

If you get a chance to see one of the last shuttle launches, don't miss it!

Speaking of missing, if you missed my Sunborn video earlier, here's another chance:

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Friday, May 14, 2010


Space shuttle Atlantis lifted off right on schedule this afternoon, in one of the most glorious sights I've ever seen with my own eyes.  My heart started pounding about at about T minus one minute and counting.  Along with the hearts of I don't know how many thousands of people gathered on the NASA causeway, a few miles from the launch pad, with a gorgeous, clear view across open water.  Somewhere around that time it hit me that there were six people inside that thing.  I had the video camera running, but my eyes were glued to the binoculars.  At T-10, I think we collectively stopped breathing.  Then the main engines lit, bright orange for the first few seconds.  A few moments later came the white plume from the solid boosters.  The light was blazingly intense, far brighter than any video you've seen, shockingly bright.  Then it lifted from the pad--we were all yelling and applauding, and about that time, the sound of the engines reached us--a deep, crackling rumble--and it rocketed into the sky, the engines lighting up its own contrail.  Remembering Challenger, we all breathed a sigh of relief when the solid boosters fell away, just barely visible. When we finally lost sight of the dwindling star, it was hundreds of miles downrange, sixty-something miles in altitude, and (the last I had heard from the loudspeakers) traveling over six thousand miles per hour, well on its way into orbit.

All this took just minutes.  And those few minutes were worth the entire trip. 

That was about nine hours ago, and I'm still replaying the vision in my head.  It was stunning, exhilarating, moving, beautiful.   And sad, because we know that the era of the space shuttle is nearing an end. 

I've got some video footage that I'll put together when we get home in a few days.  Look for it in a future post.  In the meantime, we'll  be enjoying the Nebula Awards weekend.  And...godspeed, Atlantis!

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Fingers Crossed for the Launch of Atlantis

In a few days, Allysen and I are taking off for a long weekend in Florida, Cocoa Beach to be exact. The Nebula Awards gathering and ceremony are being held just a few miles from the Kennedy Space Center this year, and were cleverly timed to coincide with the scheduled launch of space shuttle Atlantis on her final voyage before retirement. I'm so excited about finally (I hope!) seeing a launch in person, my hands are getting cramps from my crossed fingers! Makes it hard to type, too.

Launches are often delayed for one reason or another, but so far, this one has held firm and the weather outlook is good. Here's a lovely shot of the nighttime rollout to Launch Pad 39A from

In other news, life returned to normal after the big water-main break was fixed, in record time. I'm starting to get some traction on the new book again, while also working on an unrelated freelance project, and conducting our latest Advanced Writing Workshop (an offshoot of the Ultimate SF workshop I run with Craig Gardner). Busy, but mostly in a good way.

Everyone help me out, now, and wish, hope, pray, pull every string you've got for a successful launch of Atlantis this Friday!

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Sunday, May 02, 2010

Enough with the Water Problems!

Did this make the news outside Massachusetts? Probably, because we're in a state of emergency again. And again it's water, but this time from a pipe. Today the main aqueduct supplying water to most of the greater Boston area broke, sending our drinking water gushing into the Charles River. This is the new tunnel that was built less than a decade ago, and was expected to safeguard us against a break in the old aqueduct (which is now under renovation and not in service).

Our water utility, the MWRA, switched to backup reservoirs, which are not of drinkable quality. So starting today, and for who knows how long, we have to boil our drinking and handwashing and food-prep water. And when it's all over, we're going to be flushing the pond-scum out of our pipes. That could be days or weeks from now. The section of pipe that broke was a custom-made, 10-foot wide, stainless steel pipe installed just six or seven years ago. I'll bet they don't carry those down at Ace Hardware or Lowes.

By the time I got to the supermarket to see if there was any bottled water left, you couldn't even buy seltzer. Looks like I knew what I was doing when I laid in a stock of beer the other day.

I don't know how long this link will be good, but here's a story on our local Channel 5 that shows the break in the pipe:

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