My new DIY short story collection With a Little Help has garnered a positive writeup and review in the Wall Street Journal, thanks to Tom Shippey:
So far so good, but “With a Little Help” shows that Mr. Doctorow isn’t starry-eyed about what will happen next. State bureaucracies can use technology as well as individuals, and a struggle has already started over who will control the Internet. The evil side of the IT revolution is that the state can check on everything, and its data-banks get bigger all the time. Who has not cracked a joke in an email, or made some electronic comment, that could be taken the wrong way? Once you’ve attracted attention, the story “Scroogled” points out, “scroogled” is exactly what you could be.
Another Doctorow thought: Computer-guided traffic could be much more efficient, right? But would it be fair, or would the road clear magically for government apparatchiks and guys with the right microchip, while all the lights turn mysteriously red for those on some secret gray-list? The story “Human Readable” puts both sides of the argument.
Whatever the future, here and now Mr. Doctorow’s stories offer compelling images of the way it’s going to be. Venture capitalists? Forget them, says “Other People’s Money.” Big money is dumb money. Much easier, says one old-lady manufacturer to a smart young gigafund manager, for her to make and market her own product, and keep the money (just like Mr. Doctorow), than for him to find and fund a hundred products and take a rake-off. He only deals in six-figure multiples, and that’s no good: not nimble enough. And he has to get a return on all those billions, poor outdated soul.
Anyone who grooved to the counterculture vibe of Doctorow’s young-adult novels Little Brother (2008) and For the Win (2010) will embrace these stories heartily—no one can dole out technological cautionary tales while simultaneously celebrating technology as cunningly as Doctorow. This volume’s single never-before-published story, “Epoch,” is the standout, an ethically thorny but heartfelt update on the classic sf conceit of an AI that becomes too self-aware. Never one to avoid the jugular, Doctorow doesn’t bother to assign Google an alias in “Scroogled”; the depiction of a world where we’re all “Googlestalked” until we’re “guilty of something” feels chillingly immediate. It’s not always easy to warm up to Doctorow’s purposeful characters, but it’s easy to be swept up in their just-barely-futuristic travails of surveillance gone wrong and privacy shattered. Reading this on your iPhone? Then these stories are probably for you.
One interesting thing about selling print-on-demand books is that they can be instantiated all over the world, close to where the orders are. For years, pundits have predicted corner store kiosks that can print any book every written, and though we’re nowhere near that stage today, there are the first inklings of what such a world might look like.
The University of Melbourne’s Custom Book Centre has a sophisticated, well-established print-on-demand service that can efficiently print, bind and ship books across Australia and New Zealand. They got in touch with me about my DIY short story collection With a Little Help, which is sold in the US via Lulu and Amazon‘s print-on-demand services.
Tor.com is running my short story Chicken Little, which originally appeared in the Frederick Pohl tribute anthology Gateways (a book that also includes work from Bear, Benford, Brin, Bova, Gaiman, Haldeman, and many other worthies). Chicken Little is the story of a product designer at a marketing company who is charged with coming up something to sell to an immortal, sovereign quadrillionaire living in a vat.
The ﬁrst lesson Leon learned at the ad agency was: nobody is your friend at the ad agency.
Take today: Brautigan was going to see an actual vat, at an actual clinic, which housed an actual target consumer, and he wasn’t taking Leon.
“Don’t sulk, it’s unbecoming,” Brautigan said, giving him one of those tight-lipped smiles where he barely got his mouth over those big, horsey, comical teeth of his. They were disarming, those pearly whites. “It’s out of the question. Getting clearance to visit a vat in person, that’s a one-month, two-month process. Background checks. Biometrics. Interviews with their psych staff. The physicals: they have to take a census of your microbial nation. It takes time, Leon. You might be a mayﬂy in a mayﬂy hurry, but the man in the vat, he’s got a lot of time on his hands. No skin off his dick if you get held up for a month or two.”
My new Publishers Weekly column has just gone up, documenting the progress with my DIY short story collection, With a Little Help. This month, I talk about the Baroque process of getting a book listed on both Lulu and Amazon:
Getting the book on Amazon was much harder than I anticipated. At first, I considered selling the book using Lulu’s wholesale channel, which can feed into Amazon. But once both Lulu and Amazon had taken their cut of the book, my net price would have been in nosebleed territory, somewhere in the $20 range. Add to that a $2 royalty for me and the book would be remembered as one of the most expensive short story collections in publishing history.
In order to list on Amazon at a decent price point, I needed fewer wholesale discounts. For me, that meant cutting out Lulu and listing directly on Amazon through CreateSpace, Amazon’s own POD program. But CreateSpace, frankly, is a pain in the ass. First, it refuses to print any book that already has an ISBN somewhere else, a very anticompetitive practice. To overcome this, I had to create an “Amazon edition” of the book with a slightly different cover and some additional text explaining the weird world of POD publishing.
But the fun was just beginning. CreateSpace also has a cumbersome “quality assurance” process that effectively throws away all the advantages of POD. For example, every time I change so much as one character in the setup file, CreateSpace pulls the book out of Amazon. A human being must recheck the book, and then I am notified that I have to order (and pay for) a new proof to be printed and shipped from the U.S. to London. I then have to approve the proof before CreateSpace will notify Amazon that the book is ready to be made available again. It can then take three to five days before the book is actually back for sale on Amazon. Practically speaking, this means that fixing a typo or adding an appendix with new financial information costs about $20 upfront, and takes the book off Amazon’s catalogue for two weeks.
As for the stories, I think it’s safe to say that anyone who enjoyed Cory Doctorow’s novels will love them. Like his novels Little Brother, Makers and For the Win, they often start with a recognizable core: a present-day technological or sociological concept that Doctorow then pushes just a bit further than you could imagine, but in a way that’s so realistic and commonsensical that you’ll be considering “when” rather than “if” reality will catch up. Several of the stories play with one of Doctorow’s recurring themes: the relationship between information technology and personal freedom, with a special focus on privacy in the digital age. They range from hilarious (“Constitutional Crisis”) to deeply touching (“Visit the Sins”), and when Doctorow really gets going on how diminished our privacy has become (e.g. in “Scroogled”), they’re purely terrifying.
This month’s Locus magazine contains the annual “Locus Recommended Reading List,” a guide to the best science fiction and fantasy published in the preceding year, chosen by the magazine’s critics.
In addition to being a great primer for exploring the year in fiction, they’re also an excellent cheat-sheet for award-nominations — for example, the Hugo Award nomination deadline is fast approaching. You can nominate for the Hugo if you attended or supported last year’s World Science Fiction Convention in Melbourne, or if you have registered to attend or support this year’s WorldCon in Reno.