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September 28, 2004

I Love the Smell of New Books in the Morning

newbooks928.jpgSince the Science Fiction Book Club will be promoting my book in January, I figured it would be only fair to actually join the club, so a couple of weeks ago I did just that, and as a result got a small pile of books with the club's "5 books for $1" introduction thing, plus the second additional book for $4.95. So now I have a pile of books I can use to drop on something deserving, like a really large spider who forgets the Spider Smack Rule ("If a spider indoors stays where I can't smack it, it will live, because spiders are useful. If the spider strays into the smack zone, it shall be smacked, because useful or not, spiders creep out my wife").

Joining the club comes with a mild authorial tension in that Book Club editions of books usually generate a smaller royalty rate to authors; i.e., they get paid less for the books than if you go and buy them in the book store. In my particular case with Old Man's War, I'm not in the slightest bit worried about this, so if you have a SFBC membership, I don't want you to feel conflicted about picking up my book in Book Club form when it's promoted in January. For my purposes, any sale is an excellent sale. So please, select away! But when I buy books, I do like the idea of maximizing author profits whenever possible. At the same time, I'm also aware that sometimes I'm feeling cheap or am on the bubble with a book, and in those times, cost is a factor. With that in mind, I've generated my own little internal template of rules regarding when to get something in the bookstore and when to get something in the Book Club.

1. New and/or recent(< 5yrs)books from authors I know I like: Bookstore.

2. New books from writers I haven't read yet: Okay to buy from Book Club, since it's a "first taste" thing. If I end up liking the book, I'll buy the next one in the bookstore. This does not preclude buying that first book from a bookstore, of course. I imagine where I buy these books will be a matter of where I am when I see them.

3. Old (> 5yrs) books from authors I know I like: Book Club's okay. Hey, those omnibus editions save shelf space, and it's nice to have them in hardback.

4. Books I've already purchased before, the copies of which have gone missing and/or have been permanently "borrowed" by people who shall go nameless today but who will be punished at a place and time of my choosing: Book Club.

5. Books by dead people: Book Club. Because, you know, they're dead.

6. Short story collections/anthologies: Book Club. Because -- no offense to short fiction writers -- there's something about books of short stories that genuinely repel my need to purchase books. I have no idea what my malfunction here is, since I do like short stories. All I know is, prior to this Book Club spree, I haven't bought short story collections at all. So if the Book Club gets me to buy them, it's adding to the overall royalty pot for some author, not taking away from it.

7. Writers who I've liked but whose previous couple of books have been, you know, disappointing: Book Club's okay. It's like probation. If the book is good, then the next purchase will be in the bookstore. If it's not, eh. I'll get to the next book when I get to it, if I get to it.

Let's see how this little collection of rules applies with my selections, shown above:

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke: First time author who I've not read before, but about whom I've heard good things, primarily from Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who writes about the book here. I'm inclined to trust PNH's taste in books (he bought mine, you know), and if it's as good as I hope it is, Ms. Clarke can expect full royalties the next time out.

For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs, by Robert A. Heinlein: Heinlein's dead, baby. Also as a practical matter, as much as I like Heinlein, I don't know that I would have been inclined to pay full-price for this book anyway. It's not so much a novel as a political lecture, with the words "he said" put in every now and then to give the tang of fiction. Heinlein in lecture mode is my least favorite Heinlein. Still, for Book Club prices, I'm in. Call it the completist in me.

Endangered Species, by Gene Wolfe: Whoops. This isn't from the Book Club; it was sent to me because I'm on the Nebula short fiction jury this year. Note to short fiction writers in Tor anthologies or who have collections from Tor -- they're doing an excellent job putting your work in front of me for my consideration this year. Other book publishers: Not so much. At some point in time I'll discuss how I read short fiction for consideration for the Nebula jury; I'm sure it will appall and frighten you.

Succession, by Scott Westerfeld: This is the Book Club selection that violates my rules about buying from the Book Club, since this book is an omnibus of two of Scott's novels (The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds) which were released in the last couple of years, and I've read enough of Scott's work (notably his faboo YA titles Midnighters and So Yesterday) to know he deserves the full royalty treatment (so follow those links, people). However, I know Scott personally and I'll be seeing him in the reasonably near future, and when I do, I'll make royalty restitution in kind, probably by way of beer. So I felt okay with the purchase.

The Time Quartet, by Madeleine L'Engle: I've bought each of the individual books in this series (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters) at least once, and in most cases three or four times (for myself and as gifts), so, you know. Maddie's sucked a lot of cash out of me over the years.

I'll share a moment with you here: Athena saw the book and I mentioned to her that I read it when I was a kid, so she opened it and said "It's not a kid's book. It doesn't have pictures!" To which I said "Nonsense! You could probably read this book." And then I opened the book to the first page of text and had her try it. And she read that first page just fine, and she had a big grin on her face when she was done. Some people get through high school without ever reading a book without pictures, so I'm glad we got that out of the way.

The John Varley Reader, by John Varley: A short story collection. Interestingly, at the moment, the thing I'm enjoying most about the book are not the stories (which are generally pretty good), but the introductions to the stories, which give a little commentary I find fascinating.

Stories, by Ray Bradbury: Another short story collection -- many of which I had already purchased in paperback at one point or another, Ray Bradbury being the only writer whose short story collections I've ever bought (often because some of his "novels" were simply short story collections with connective tissue, e.g., The Martian Chronicles). Most of those books are God knows where, however. So now I have a bunch in one place. Convenient.

And now you know two things: I have a lot of excellent books to read, and I'm a master at silly rationalizations. It's possible you knew these things about me already.

Posted by john at September 28, 2004 09:35 AM

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Stephen | September 28, 2004 11:30 AM

I notice you haven't mentioned Used books. I get most of my books at a local used book store. I almost never buy a paperback. My philosophy is that I want the words, not the package.

While this is not exactly fair to authors that I like I don't think that the amount royalty generated by my purchase is worth it compared to paying $10 for a book instead of $.50. Of course most of my favorite authors are dead anyway.

Stephen | September 28, 2004 11:32 AM

Oops. Meant to say, "I almost never buy a hardcover"

John Scalzi | September 28, 2004 11:38 AM

Stephen writes:

"I notice you haven't mentioned Used books."

I rarely buy used books any more, personally, although I don't have a moral objection to them or anything. I can afford to pay full price, so usually, I do.

Having said that, if I'm in a book store and I see a used book I want, I'll buy it. There are a lot of books that aren't in print anymore (or are but poorly distributed). In those cases I just assume I'll get around to buying a new book from that author sooner or later.

At least with living authors. Dead authors I am entirely unsentimental about; I care very little about the financial well-being of their estates.

Dave Munger | September 28, 2004 11:51 AM

I thought the basic reason book clubs existed was to promote word-of-mouth. The idea being, avid readers would get these books at a discount, and eventually lead to bigger margin sales because of the "buzz" they've generated. So, if you're someone who actually reads that much, book club away, and then you'll be helping the author/publisher by providing free advertising when you tell all your friends about the book later.

John Scalzi | September 28, 2004 12:09 PM

Dave Munger writes:

"I thought the basic reason book clubs existed was to promote word-of-mouth."

Possibly, but I think the reason they exist is so the book club and the original book publisher can make money, particularly off the "Main Selection" of the month -- that's the book that gets sent to you automatically (unless you go out of your way to indicate that you don't want it). It's a pretty good chance a majority percentage will take the book, which depending on the size of the book club can mean tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of additional sales without a huge amount of effort on the part of the publisher.

As an alternate selection, I don't imagine that OMW will get that sort of sales bump, but at the level at which I'm playing (i.e., entry level) even a couple thousand additional sales would mean a lot to Tor and to me.

Jed | September 28, 2004 02:08 PM

I'd kinda like to know how you feel about places like Amazon.com and other online bookstores. I like to buy books but often the online bookstores offer me MUCH better rates then the local corner bookstore. As a recently out of college/ trying to make ends meet/ trying to repay college costs/ saving for the future/ trying to come up with money for a wedding kinda guy the discount (15-30% plus no tax plus free shipping) usually is well worth it, but how much of that comes out of your (the author's) pocket if any? I mean if I have the choice between going to the local bookstore (which btw isn't a "local" bookstore since it is a borders / barnes & noble or other LARGE chain) and paying MSRP there or buying my books online I almost always choose online, but if know that that decision directly hurts the author (like in the case of the book club) I would be more willing to make the trip and pay the MSRP.

Brian | September 28, 2004 02:16 PM

On the topic of silly rationalizations, one of my friends doesn't like to eat things that have both meat and fruit in them (e.g., ham and pineapple). He explains this by saying that there's a scale for foods, ranging from fruits to vegetables to dairy to meat (grains sit outside the scale system and are acceptable with anything - fruit cobbler, turkey sandwich, etc.). He then stipulates that it is acceptable for him to eat in combination only those foods separated by two or fewer degrees on the scale.

Eminently scientific. :-)

John Scalzi | September 28, 2004 03:14 PM

Jed asks:

"I'd kinda like to know how you feel about places like Amazon.com and other online bookstores."

Well, I like them just fine and I buy stuff there fairly frequently. However, I usually do try to hit the local bookstore first. Once shipping is factored in, the cost is not substantially different (or, to put it more finely, not substantially different that someone of my income needs to care), and I like the idea of helping out a local retailer -- and in my case it really *is* a local retailer, since the "big" bookstore around here is independently and locally owned.

Re: Discounts -- I do believe that if the discount off a book is more than something like 40%, I get paid fewer royalties, although I'd need to check the contract to be absolutely sure.

Here's my feeling about these things: If you can afford to pay for a book at a rate that allows me (or any other author) full royalties, then sure, go ahead and do that. If you're tight for cash, pay the best (legitimate) price for the book you can and don't worry too much about what we get paid.

Kristy | September 28, 2004 03:17 PM

Sweet story about Athena reading! With a daddy like you, if she didn't grow up to be a voracious reader, there's something wrong in the world.

Dawn B. | September 28, 2004 04:17 PM

Want info about the Nebula Judging. Please.

RE: Used versus Amazon versus Independant

I try to have moral guidelines. I really do. However, it is harder and harder for me to find a good, convinent local independant bookstore. So usually end up at Amazon or B&N/Borders. Why? Because they have the book I want, when I want it, for a price I can afford.

I was a member of the SFBC for a long time, but I can't afford the temptation and knowing that authors get less money that way is off-putting at this point in my life.

Justine Larbalestier | September 28, 2004 04:21 PM

You better be buying Scott many beers! Not for the bookclub purchase, mind, but for getting the title of Midnighters wrong--there's no definite article in front.

Succession is one book much better to read it that way.

Yours pedantically . . .

John Scalzi | September 28, 2004 04:33 PM

Justine Larbalestier says:

"You better be buying Scott many beers! Not for the bookclub purchase, mind, but for getting the title of Midnighters wrong--there's no definite article in front."

Pick, pick, pick. Fixed. No beers for *you.*

Oh, I kid. I'll buy you beer too.

Justine Larbalestier | September 28, 2004 04:43 PM

I don't drink beer anyway. [Pouts] I mean, I woudn't drink beer if I didn't drink beer.

Let us all know what you think of Jonathan Strange. I'm afraid of books that long . . .

Patrick Nielsen Hayden | September 28, 2004 10:55 PM

Of course, nothing in Gene Wolfe's Endangered Species is eligible for this year's Nebula. It's not even a new collection; we originally published it in 1989 or1990 or so. But enjoy it anyway!

RooK | September 29, 2004 01:09 AM

A hush falls on the blog as all the avid SF fans wonder about the real reason why Scalzi gets free books sent to him. Perhaps it's some sort of elaborate ruse to influence his Nebula voting. Or maybe Scalzi is lying to us... but why?

Suddenly, I'm reminded why I don't write mysteries.

Jack Marxer | September 29, 2004 04:16 AM

To which I said "Nonsense! You could probably read this book." And then I opened the book to the first page of text and had her try it. And she read that first page just fine, and she had a big grin on her face when she was done.

Wonderful!! Congrats to you and Athena.

Scott | September 29, 2004 06:40 AM

Dawn says: I try to have moral guidelines. I really do. However, it is harder and harder for me to find a good, convinent local independant bookstore. So usually end up at Amazon or B&N/Borders. Why? Because they have the book I want, when I want it, for a price I can afford.

I guess I'm rather mercenary when it comes to purchasing things... if a discounted version is allowable in the authors contract, it doesn't even cross my mind that I should pay full[er] price for it.

I buy from Amazon because I'm -lazy- and I like coming home to find books on my doorstep. I also buy from Amazon because I can buy a book like... 2 years in advance of something (I pre-ordered George R. R. Martin's "A Feast For Crows" in early 2003... and it's not even a completed manuscript yet). Less excessively, I pre-ordered the 3rd Baroque Cycle book from Stephenson a few weeks ago, because it was getting "about that time" and needn't exert any further effort to figure out when it's actually touching store-shelves... and lo-and-behold, I get an email saying it's on its way to me, and will be on my doorstep soon!

Wait... why am I advertising for Amazon again? Oh yeah, convenience owns my soul, price comes second, authorial royalties come somewhere well behind those two, about even with my vague desire that the "poor saps" who run cool local book-shops stay in business.

John Scalzi | September 29, 2004 12:26 PM

PNH says:

"Of course, nothing in Gene Wolfe's Endangered Species is eligible for this year's Nebula."

Yup, which is why I thought it was odd it came to me (addressed to John Scalzi, Nebula Short Fiction Jury, no less). But I'm not going to *complain*. Any day I get free Gene Wolfe is a good day.

ken | September 29, 2004 02:16 PM

I thought the first rule of Book Club was you don't talk about Book Club.

Ab_Normal | September 29, 2004 05:59 PM

I was a member of the SFBC back in the mid-80's, and my main complaint was about the quality of the books -- they were just plain cheesy, bad binding, thin paper, didn't feel like they would last. Has the quality gotten any better?

John Scalzi | September 29, 2004 08:22 PM

So far the books I've received look fine; I guess I'll have to wait a year or two to see how they stand up.

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