Friday, May 30, 2014

Skyrim: Dragonborn DLC

[Skryim: Dragonborn, Bethesda Game Studios, Bethesda Softworks, 2012]

what took so long?

I realize that this third and final downloadable content package for Skyrim came out about a year-and-a-half ago, but I'm just getting around to it. When I played Oblivion, I bought the Game of the Year Edition, so all of the DLC came with the game. I racked up over 180 hours on the thing and completed every quest in the game, DLC included. However, with Skyrim I bought it on Day One and, to be honest, when I finished the main story line I was ready to put it down for a while. I never thought it would take me this long to get back to it, though. That said, here we are, and here's my critique of the highest rated of the Skyrim DLC offerings.  

what's the buzz? Tell me what's-a-happenin'!

After you've downloaded the Dragonborn DLC package and you start to play, you are quickly attacked by a group of cultists on behalf of one Miraak, who turns out to be the first Dragonborn. This type of aggression will not stand, man, so you set out to find Miraak and put him down. In order to track down your failed assassin, you hop on a ship headed for Solstheim, an island in Morrowind. Long time Elder Scrolls players will remember Morrowind from the third game in the series, and Solstheim from Bloodmoon, an expansion pack for the same. 

You do some sleuthing in an attempt to locate Miraak, but the islanders only seem to have a vague recollection of who or what he is. It's almost like they've all had the same mostly forgotten dream about the man, but they can't seem to remember any details about the first Dragonborn. Eventually, you find your way to the Temple of Miraak where you team up with Frea, a woman from Skaal whose people are being tormented by the evil, power-hungry villain. It turns out he is using the people of Skaal in an attempt to return to Tamriel and take over. He has placed them, along with many other citizens of Solstheim, into some sort of a trance where they are using formerly helpful magic stones to bring about his triumphant return and the downfall of Skyrim. 

You learn all of this when you find a "Black Book" deep in the recesses of Miraak's Temple and read it. Upon opening the text, you and Frea are transported to the Apocrypha, which is another dimension temporarily inhabited by Miraak as he prepares for his hostile takeover of your homeland. For reasons that don't really make sense, considering that you are the only other Dragonborn in Tamriel, Miraak doesn't find you to be much of a threat and he sends you and Frea back to Solstheim. I understand that it's necessary in order to keep the events of the DLC moving along, but this is a HUGE plot hole in the story. I mean, come on, he's already sent cultist assassins to kill you once. You spend the rest of the story gaining enough power to eventually take the man down. He's got you right there, in his dimension, surrounded by his cultists, underpowered and untrained, and he lets you go?! 

Now, I realize I've been talking about magic rocks and other dimensions, so obviously a little suspension of your disbelief is necessary to enjoy the game, but I just couldn't ever let go of this plot hole in my head. I won't go into too much detail about the rest of the story for those who haven't played it yet but intend to, but you literally spend the rest of the game trying to gain enough power to defeat Miraak. Due to that fact, you have to assume that you don't possess the necessary powers at this point in the game. It's the Skyrim equivalent of a Bond villain monologuing just long enough for James to escape from the overly-elaborate trap that has been set for him and defeat whatever SPECTRE baddy has come for him this time. All Miraak had to do was kill you, right then and there, and it's over. He wins. Instead, he sends you back to Morrowind to learn everything you need to know to eventually defeat him. Ugh. Sorry to harp on it so long but it really bugged me. 

so, you hated it?

No, I actually really enjoyed it. For one thing, you FINALLY get to ride dragons! It's something that I'd been dying to do since I killed my first dragon nearly three years ago. Not only that, but it was nice to have something new to do in the Elder Scrolls universe while waiting for the Elder Scrolls Online to come out (Thanks for pushing it back six months, Bethesda! Boo!!!) Unlike Oblivion, which I beat in its entirety in one huge go around, this served to break up Skyrim into at least two chunks. I fully intend to purchase at least one more piece of DLC because I had so much fun returning to Tamriel in Dragonborn. Aside from that one huge plot hole, it was a truly enjoyable experience. I can't wait to get Dawnguard or Hearthfire and do some more exploring of my favorite RPG world while I wait for the Elder Scrolls Online to come out. 

time for the breakdown

While I didn't enjoy this DLC as much as the Shivering Isles from Oblivion, it definitely holds its own against the Knights of the Nine. With the aforementioned postponement of the Elder Scrolls Online, my hunger for more of Tamriel has only grown. It was the perfect time for me to dig back into Skyrim and, having put off buying any of the DLC until now, I was able to do so without starting over and re-playing any parts of the game that I've already beaten. While it isn't revolutionary, Dragonborn was an enjoyable trip back into the lands of the Elder Scrolls and I can easily recommend it for anyone who is itching to get back into the zone in preparation for the next Bethesda release. 

the math

Objective Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for just giving me more Skyrim. I truly love these games and, as long as they aren't total garbage, I will continue to enjoy most anything Bethesda puts out in the Elder Scrolls universe. 

Penalties: -1 for that HUGE plot hole I just couldn't get past. I mean, come on! He's right there! JUST KILL HIM!!! Ugh. Okay, I'll let it go now. 

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10. A mostly enjoyable experience.   

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Thursday Morning Superhero

This week's crop of comics was truly epic.  I didn't get a chance to review all of the comics I wanted to read and still ended up with one of the larger Thursday Morning Superhero entries to date.  This week featured a new comic from Warren Ellis, Matt Kindt doing what he does, and an epic crossover.

Pick of the Week:
Star Wars: Rebel Heist #2 - Matt Kindt continues to tell what I consider his love story for Star Wars.  We learned of his love for Han Solo in the first issue and now we are treated to his love of Princess Leia.  Kindt's take on Leia makes her an even stronger woman than portrayed in the movies.  What I love about Kindt's series is how each story is told by a different member of the rebellion and we get to see the Star Wars characters through their eyes.  It is a personal view into characters I have known since childhood.  The comics are fun, can be enjoyed on their own, and should most likely be made into an animated series.  Kindt does such a nice job of painting heroes as relatable humans.  He takes these characters that are larger than life and makes them human.  Highly recommend for any Star Wars fan.

The Rest:
Southern Bastards #2 - The duo of Jason Aaron and Jason Latour give us an insight into the seedy underbelly of small southern towns in which high school football is king.  Earl Tubbs returned to Craw County to simply pack up his father's stuff and get the hell out of dodge. His father, the former Sheriff, loved and cared about this small town dearly.  Earl wanted nothing more than to escape.  He finds himself mixed up with Coach Boss and his cronies.  Dark, gritty, and vastly entertaining, Southern Bastards should make its way to the top of your pull list.  Now is the time to catch up because based on the conclusion of this issue, #3 is going to be one you won't want to miss.

Mind MGMT #22 - One of my favorite comics continues to ramp up as both the rebellion and the Management are attempting to sway The Magician.  We learn a good deal about her background and why Meru shutting down her ability was so harmful to who she was trying to become.  Dark Horse hinted that one would not survive this arc and I am worried for Henry Lyme and crew.  Matt Kindt goes the extra distance to continue to produce one of the most beautiful and thoughtful comics of all time.

Chew/Revival #1 - In theory a mash-up between Chew and Revival doesn't make a lot of sense.  I have read the first trade of Revival (it is great) and am current with Chew and never saw these two worlds interacting.  Despite my reservations, this issue was a lot of fun and worked really well.  If you are a fan of either series it is worth your time.  You get two separate stories that are both quite entertaining and the juxtaposition of the drama of Revival with the insanity that is Chew simply works.  It was hinted at a Poyo/Saga crossover and I think that would be glorious.

Trees #1 - The new title from Warren Ellis paints a picture in which the world has been invaded by intelligent life.  The problem is that the intelligent life that invaded the earth don't recognize humans as intelligent or living beings.  While we have not seen what they look like yet, they have planted trees across the globe.  Giant pillars that grow through the clouds and occasionally release a waste product.  This issue really sets the tone for the series and introduces us to some key players.  Nothing major happens, but Ellis does a nice job setting up the pins.

Batman #31 - Zero year continues to rush towards its epic showdown between Batman and the Riddler. Batman and Gordon's plan comes to fruition as they attempt to trace the signal from the Riddler's signal in order to pinpoint his location within Gotham.  Mix in some gladiatorial style combat and a flashback to the high school days and you have another successful issue from Snyder.  While not my favorite arc thus far, it is shaping up to have quite the exciting conclusion and has given me a new found respect for the Riddler.

Inhuman #2 - This series is rapidly approaching my favorite from Marvel.  With similarities to classic X-Men faire, the Inhumans are seeking acceptance from humans.  Medusa, the queen of the Inhumans, has a crew that is following the Terrigen cloud and providing assistance to the newly discovered Inhumans.  Captain America shows up in this issue and proposes that S.H.I.E.L.D. help out Medusa to ensure the safety of both humans and Inhumans.  After A.I.M. attempts to secure a piece of Attilan technology that has fallen into Times Square she reluctantly agrees.  This series really feels like a natural throw-back story filled with super human abilities and it makes me one happy reader.

Deadpool #29 - This was the first Original Sin tie-in that I picked up and it was ok.  I am excited for what it set up, Disco era Dazzler battling Vampires, but this issue felt a little flat.  It still had the usual crude Deadpool humor, but not much really happened.  I enjoyed learning about Deadpool's daughter, but was hoping for a bit more.  If you are a fan of Deadpool then you should be reading this as it sets the stage for what I hope is great, but if you were thinking about leaping on for the tie-in I would suggest waiting.

POSTED BY MIKE N. -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Edited Version of "Those Guidelines"

If you follow SF/F fandom on twitter, you are no doubt aware of the imbroglio surrounding the submissions guidelines for the anthology World Encounters (current version, cached version), which has been called out as offensive. I'm willing to give the editor the benefit of the doubt as far as intentions go--I mean, why else create an anthology called World Encounters? But I agree that there is some deeply problematic language used in the text--not to mention a boatload of Othering and cultural essentialism/reductionism.

But rather than linger on that, I thought I'd just rewrite the guidelines so that they convey the same meaning I *think* the editor intended them to, but in such a way as to avoid said problematic language, Othering and cultural essentialism/reductionism. Basically everything else I edited out is superfluous or redundant--sorry, that's just the copyeditor in me. Also, please keep in mind I'm not writing my own guidelines here, but interpreting someone else's. Major changes are in italics:

DESCRIPTION: An anthology of culture clashes between aliens and people of Earth’s various cultures as they encounter each other--on Earth or beyond. Stories can be told from alien or earthling points of view.  Stories should not all revolve around Western earthlings.  They can take place on Earth, on other planets, or in space.  Not all stories need to center on conflict between aliens and Earth--they could, for example, be working together to overcome a common obstacle.  Not all the aliens have to be sentient creatures or at least sentient creatures as we understand them.

The goal is to feature stories from both Western and non-Western writers, and from both established and up-and-coming writers. I will therefore be limiting the number of Western and established writers included to be sure we get those outside voices. Unfortunately, English translation is not in the budget.

I would also like to get a balance in terms of POV; however, please note that I value authenticity of voice first and foremost--so please write about what you know. If you have little knowledge about, say, Japanese culture, this will be evident in the writing--and may inadvertently cause offense to readers. Do not write stereotypes.

Please keep it PG, as  we’d like this to be a collection parents and kids can read and discuss to learn and encourage interest in SF and world cultures. Please limit swearing and cursing, as well as graphic sex or violence. 

Also please do not submit stories that are overly partisan in their politics. I want readers to engage with a diversity of worldviews and cultures but not in a potentially off-putting way.

Must be willing to respect the editor’s editing requests.

Crunchy Bits:
Word Counts: 3000-7000 words
Pay rate: $.06/word
Formatting: Submit in RTF format, single spaced, double space between paragraphs, no indentations. Italics for italics, underline for underline, bold for bold.
Publication in Late Summer/Fall of 2015 (TBD further)

Does that work better? I think it does.

In the end, I see this is an instructive example--many of the things that cause offense are not designed to do so, but rather do so because we human beings don't always think of the same things as other human beings, or lend them the same credence.

True, it sucks to to be told you wrote something offensive, and because you know exactly what your intentions were, there's an urge to circle the wagons. But I think that's the wrong approach, and is ultimately self-defeating. I certainly hope that if I write something and am told it's offensive, that I'll take the time to listen and learn from that criticism. It might not sink in right away--nobody's perfect, after all. But a simple affirmation that you are listening and learning can go a long way, and serves everyone best in the end--yourself included. Because then no one can doubt your good intentions. 

Microreview [book]: Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto

Pretty but Uninspiring

To feed my borderline unhealthy obsession with True Detective, I tracked down a copy of show creator Nic Pizzolatto's crime novel Galveston. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect, though "gritty," "artsy" and "weird" all seemed plausible--particularly after reading Dennis Lehane's glowing review in the New York Times. Turns out Galveston is plenty gritty, but not nearly as ambitious or abstract as I wanted it to be.

Galveston tells the story of Roy Cady, an enforcer for a mid-level gangster in New Orleans. Cady finds himself in a tight situation and so hightails it to the eponymous city on the Gulf with hard case Roxy and a young child in tow.

Galveston is fairly classic noir, but as I outlined in my Friday Five for pornokitsch, noir basically comes in three flavors:

1. The Hardboiled Thriller, in which a stubborn and ethical hero pushes back against dark and corrupt world, ultimately settling for small, symbolic victories against a backdrop of general hopelessness (e.g. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler).

2. The Sadsack Tragedy, in which a well-intentioned but weak-willed antihero attempts but is unable to escape the clutches of said dark and corrupt world (e.g. James M. Cain, Jim Thompson).

3. The Revenge Fantasy, in which a sociopathic product of the dark and corrupt world seeks revenge against its agents, yet is unconcerned with changing or improving that world (e.g. Patricia Highsmith, Richard Stark). 

The genius of Galveston is that Pizzolatto keeps us guessing as to which one Cady's story will turn out to be. And the book is beautifully written too--sharp, evocative and peppered with passages that are, quite simply, dazzling.

Unfortunately, Galveston often feels weighed down by reliance on the tropes of the genre--the tough-but-caring criminal, the hard case (yet vulnerable!) love interest, the innocent child, etc. It isn't that Galveston is bad--it's not at all; it's that Galveston plays things a bit too safe. In other words, it's no True Detective.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for Pizzolatto's gorgeous prose.

Penalties: -1 for "meh."

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10. "Enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore."


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator (2012).

Pizzolatto, Nic. Galveston: A Novel [Scribner, 2011]

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


[Solaris, 2014]

Here we are again. I know there has been a large gap since the last part of the review of this anthology, but that is, well, it's because... that is to say... look, anthologies take ages to read, okay?!

The variety of style, subject and entertainment continued as I progressed through the last ten of Strahan's choices. First off, Benjanun Sriduangkaew's story Fade To Gold returns after its earlier appearence in the superb End of the Road anthology, also from Solaris, a few months back (also reviewed here on Nerds). Its melodic, paced and deceptively simple prose follows soldier-with-a-secret Thidakesorn through the countryside of ancient Thailand as they encounter a strange, seductive and deadly woman. The mixture of love and distrust that grows between them as each reveals their secret is fascinatingly-told and Sriduangkaew's denouement is a beguiling mix of the horrific and romantic. Tainted love in the jungle, with wonderful phrasing.

Selkie Stories Are For Losers didn't compare in power, sadly coming after such succesful writing. But that is not to dismiss Sofia Samatar's story purely by comparision; on its own (and I waited to reread it to be sure of this) it is very confusing, yet I read both times from start to finish with full engrossment. It was impossible for me to understand what was going on aside from the narrator's love for their friend Mona, and a little of their family history. The story is fragmented and largely in the head of the protagonist, and the references to either mutants or other species, or something else, are as vague as they would be if you knew the backstory. So no awkward exposition to slow the breathless emotion of the narrator, yet a little backstory might have given the tale a bit more power. I would love to know what others think however, as I felt like I was missing something, or perhaps not allowing mystery and atmosphere to be enough themselves.

The young American writer An Owomoyela, however, provides both these elements and a plot and landscape that all work in harmony to deliver In Metal, In Bone. Benine is a man with the power to experience visions of people's memories by touching objects. He is summoned to an army camp in the midst of his civil war-ravaged African nation to 'read' bones collected from mass graves and battlefields, in order to indentify the dead. I said plot but really the narrative is sparse, concentrating on a few moments over the course of the time Benine spends at the camp, before a wonderfully bleak and profound final page. The interaction between the four characters and the descriptions of the magical visions are nicely realised, and I would love to read a full novel from this writer.

Similarly impressive but thousands of miles away in every sense, Eleanor Arnason delivers with Kormak The Lucky what I found to be the most singularly-enjoyable of all the stories.. I think... So much of these reviews are down to my mood and what story came before, that clear subjectivity is hard to achieve. Yet her tale of an Irish slave dragged into a world of magic, iron beasts and vicious Elf feuds is, regardless of perspective, enormously entertaining. As I've stated in earlier parts of these reviews, a lack of what I see as traditional genre story-telling was disappointing my expectations, so I was glad to be in a place of hidden tunnels, enchanted metals, ancient curses, ice-cold queens and so on. Kormak is an interesting mix of pragmatism and defiance, and his journey from young slave to canny rebel against his various owners is full of incident and great world-building, and manages what I think I was yearning for - an ability to harnish the comforting familiarity of genre tradition with original ideas and characters.

Sing by Sweden's Karin Tidbeck is amazing. Set on a distant moon where birdsong replaces the local's speech when the moon is up (obviously; why wouldn't it?), Aino is a shy and separate shopkeeper in a small settlement who attracts the curiosity and then love of a visiting scientist. Tidbeck gently paints a distant universe of fragmented sub-species of human and space colonies, without resorting to any 'in year xxxx mankind has conquered the stars' style of exposition, but unlike other authors in this collection she gives enough information to support the fictional soil she puts her characters on. Aino is the sort of quiet, fragile person you come to root for, and her hidden determination to escape her crippled form and lonely situation drives us to a satisfying, fantastical conclusion. Loved it.

I didn't love but did rather like Madeline Ashby's Social Services.  It unfairly suffered in the shadow of early works in the book, as it adopts similar ideas of inhanced AI and brain-interfering. Lena is a sad yet committed social worker in a future U.S. where the economy has collapsed, leaving abandoned housing and drugged teens that Lena visits in her automated vehicle, whilst her 'Social Service' in her brain gives her virtual displays of information. As her memory slips, we notice her relying on this artificial guide, and I sensed all was not right. The ending is dark and convincing, and left me wanting more, yet the sense of having been here already never quite left, and Lena doesn't get enough time or space to make her fate as moving as it perhaps could have been. Nevertheless, I found a lot to admire and would be keen to read Ashby's other fiction, free of the comparisions forced by me on it here.

The Road of Needles has a dark finale too, but Caitlin R. Kiernan keeps us guessing as to whether it is actually happening or in the disorientated, hallucinating mind of space pilot Nix, as she struggles with an onboard emergency whilst recalling her life back home. Her mind slowly warps past and present, and the ship's computer reveals a virus that stretches her sanity to the brink. A brilliant yet oblique final cliffhanger frames a great space thriller. I really cared for Nix and her work-life worries, and was fascinated by the world in which they and her battle for survival existed. And a spaceship! Yay!

Nebraska's Robert Reed's Mystic Falls is a masterpiece of intelligent sci-fi, I think. Hector Borland is sent back into his own past via his memory to wipe out a sentinent virus that has hacked everyone's brain (again with these themes of brain-adaptation and collective AI - it's clearly in fashion). His walk up to the titular waterfall with the aparition (a beautiful woman designed to capture human interest and compassion) is full of detailed narration that gives us the background to this scheme, and the results of Hector's actions are interesting and complex. I loved the final line as much as anything in this anthology.

Back to space, well, Mars, for Belfast native Ian McDonald's The Queen of Night's Aria, a welcome wave of humour and retro sci-fi fantasy. We learn that the Martian's of Well's War of the Worlds faced a counter-attack from humanity in the years since (time is confusing - the characters seem very mid-20th century yet are in a future-feeling world of space battles), and we follow arrogant and gluttonish Count Jack, a blustering Irish singer who is caught with his manager, and our narrator, Faisal in an epic battle whilst performing for human troops near the front. A mad and wildly-entertaining story follows and the Count finds himself doing the show of his life. Superb, with great action scenes and witty dialogue, this is definitely in my top five or so of the collection.

More of Ireland follows, from Galway resident Van Nolan, who is undoubtably a fine wordsmith. I tried hard to forget this was the very last story, and lose myself in former astronaut Dale's interaction with the locals of the Irish town he has come to spread his comrade's ashes. They go fishing and go drinking, and Dale tells them of the disaster in orbit that killed his friend. Gentle and compassionate, yes. Atmospheric and realistic, yes. Sci-fi or fantasy? No. To finish the collection with yet another story which, despite its merits, puts the nail in the coffin of what dissatisfied me with Strahan's choices was a shame for me.

Am I being too strict? Am I missing subtle elements hinting that the 'normal' I saw was more 'fantastical', the horror more monsterous or the technology more sci-fi? Surely, yet I am left still with a confusion as to what science fiction, fantasy and other genres mean to others. I found other people on Goodreads and elsewhere with the same complaints, so I'm not alone, but are we all being too traditional?

Please respond in the comments below with your definitions of 'sci-fi' and 'fantasty', as I would love to hear what you think about these genres and where their borders lie, and whether they matter. Strahan was searching for the best writing in the genres, the areas, that these writers all work within. He found some incredible writing, some superb tales. Was he however going to far from his intention, stated in his intro, to at least partially honour genre-tradition? And should I care? For now, based on my own prejudices, here is the math...

The Math
Baseline Assessment : 8/10

Bonuses : +1 for giving me within its vast collection some of the finest readin moments of the past year and introducing me to a raft of new writers

Penalites : -1 for failing to stick to sci-fi; -1 for failing to stick to fantasy when it wasn't aslo sticking to sci-fi... just basically a general not sticking attitude

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10
"a mostly enjoyable experience"
Read about our scoring system, in which a sufficiently random sample of books would normally distribute around 5, here

Written by English Scribbler, NOAF contributor since 2013 and genre-novice

Friday, May 23, 2014

Microreview [Comics] Anarchy Comics

Kinney, Jay (ed.). Anarchy Comics [PM Press]

The Meat

I’m not sure when I first heard of Anarchy Comics, but I’m guessing it was sometime between 1994 and 1996—that is, during the period when I was reading a lot of comics and books on anarchism and during the period when there was no internet. Had I had internet access, I would have tracked down an issue or two, or at least have learned something more of its existence. It was anarchism in comic book form, after all. The 17-year old me would not only have loved reading such a book, he would have needed to read it. But alas, I never got my hands on a single copy. And then I graduated from a fascination with anarchism into ironic political detachment. That is, I became a political sociologist.

But things get collected and reprinted. Many months back, I was at the store to buy our beloved editor a birthday gift when I saw the Anarchy Comics trade. I read it immediately. I planned to review it immediately. And then I procrastinated and got out of blogging for a few weeks—or something along those lines. Here it is, six or so months later and I've finally got around to it.

The review: It’s worth your money. Yes, yes. Irony.

Editor Jay Kinney came up with the idea of Anarchy Comics in the late seventies, in part to join his passion for comics with his passion for anarchist philosophy, in part as a way to make sense of the unceremonious demise of the New Left on the world stage. And it reads like the late seventies, full of punk vigor and utter disdain for the right and the left. Though it’s a relic of its time, it is nonetheless a very important and very entertaining piece of comics history. It’s often pretty funny too.

Kinney deserves praise not merely for corralling an international gang of cartoonists into contributing to the book, but for his own contributions. He and Paul Mavrides created some of the best and funniest strips in Anarchy. “Kultur Documents,” a bizarre mélange of a pictogram workers rebellion and a punk spoof on Archie Comics—seriously—is perhaps the best piece in the collection, sardonic and bizarre. “Armageddon Outtahere” may also possibly be the best piece in the collection for the very same reasons, with the added bonus of pondering competing claims to ownership of the apocalypse. These two alone may be worth the price of the book.

Among Anarchy Comics’ better entries are its historical strips. The French duo Épistoloer and Volny provide a number of historical sketches of anarchism, examining the Kronstadt Mutiny following the Bolshevik Revolution and the Rustauds’ Revolt in 16th Century Alsace. Another piece Steve Stiles’s “Wobblies!”, meshes the history of the American IWW union with his own experience of questioning at the hands of US military intelligence. Unsurprisingly, Spain Rodriguez provides the best of the historical strips with his pair of entries on the Spanish Civil War, “Blood and Sky” and “Durruti”; a brief biographical sketch fn Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno, and “1871,” a look at the failed Paris Commune. (His “Roman Spring,” exploring the generational conflicts of the Italian “Years of Lead” during the 1970s, unfortunately, is rather superficial and romanticized story, heavy on melodrama.) Reading these made me wish he’d have continued with such historical work on anarchism—and maybe I should finally buy Che.

But as with most anthologies of any kind, some of the material in Anarchy Comics is forgettable. Much of this reads like the writings of unfocused youthful agitators: willfully naïve and childishly hostile, overflowing with equal parts optimism and anger. And ultimately pointless—as editor Kinney admits, to an extent, in his introduction. From a pedagogical perspective, more thoughtful pieces on anarchist philosophy and its development would have improved the book considerably. Though Anarchy Comics was designed to specifically avoid long-winded exegeses on obscure tracts and sterile debates over irrelevant minutiae of good theory—a hallmark of leftism—such materials would have been beneficial for the novice militant. The collection does include a handful of terse theoretical pieces—Harry S. Robins’s “Anarchy Panarchy” being the best, as well as funniest—though I would have preferred more. I suppose I’ll have to make a trip to the library.

Part of anarchism’s allure—and part of the reason for why it has historically been seen as such a threat—stems from its association with violence, i.e. the propaganda by the deed. Marx derided his anarchist adversaries as “alchemists of revolution”: they believed, he argued, that they could jumpstart revolution through daring acts of violence and assassination, thus avoiding all the work of raising consciousnesses and patient mobilization. Anarchy Comics certainly has its fair share of appeals to violence, often adolescently expressed. While violence in comics may be commonplace, enjoining readers to perpetrate the mayhem themselves is often frowned upon. And it’s hard to imagine anyone getting away with a fictional account of the president’s assassination in this post-9/11 world. But it was a simpler time.

Well, it’s late and I have class to teach early in the morning. Plus, I’d like to get in a few pages of Bakunin before bed. Maybe there’s something to this anarchist business after all.

The Math

Objective score: 8/10

Penalties: -1 for the bad strips

Bonuses: +1 for sending me to the library; +1 for "free kittens" (p. 145)

Nerd coefficient: 9/10

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Thursday Morning Superhero

San Diego Comic Con is still quite a ways off, but the nerds are already raging.  Ace Parking released its parking passes for the Con and true to SDCC fashion the fans crashed the site and were quite upset.  As a father I try to teach my kids not to get upset over things that are out of your control and to find the positive in the situation.  So you couldn't get parking despite trying your best.  San Diego is a big city with ample parking.  Sure it might not be the most convenient, but try to remember that you are lucky enough to be attending SDCC in the first place.  Sorry you had a rough go Ace Parking.  I thought you did alright.

Pick of the Week:
Saga #19 - This comic isn't fair to the other books on the market and Fiona Staples is a saint for the work she does on this series.  The opening panel is both shocking and beautiful and I love how this series is pushing the envelope.  Getting a peek into The Robot Kingdom at the start of the book was a treat and made me sympathize with a group of aliens that were initially portrayed as villains.  A spin-off that focused on the life of Princess Robot and her child would make a compelling series of its own. The subtle humor mixed in with a compelling drama and a cast of characters that have such depth and complexity.  A lot happened in an issue that felt both light and brief.  Not sure how Brian K. Vaughan does it, but I have a hankering to go read Y: The Last Man again.

The Rest:
Axe Cop: The American Choppers #1 - It brings me great pleasure to see Axe Cop return to print form.  What could possibly make Axe Cop even better?  A team up featuring some of the best axe (not chainsaw) wielding superheroes that have ever graced the pages of a comic book.  This new miniseries from Dark Horse stays true to Axe Cop form and is an absolute delight to read.  As the parent of a soon to be 7-year old I can truly relate with the wonderful imagination of Malachai Nicolle.  I should also admit that I would love to see a Captain Planet (the planet from which all captains are from) spin-off.

Daredevil #3 - Daredevil is still adjusting to his new San Francisco digs and is up against a formidable foe in the Owl.  Mark Waid steps up the funny for this issue as his run with Daredevil continues to be plain fun.  Waid also is great with mixing in real drama and fear with his humor.  The book remains light, but it seems like Waid has big plans for Daredevil in San Francisco.  Nothing beats Daredevil acting tough and dropping a Lying Cat reference.  "BZZT. Lying Cat says 'Lying.'".  It's funny because it's true.  That is something that Lying Cat would totally say upon hearing the lies of Shadow Man.

Original Sin #2 - The hunt for the murderer of the Watcher continues as the holder of the eye is finally revealed.  While I enjoyed the action on the surface, the detective work that was taking place underground was the highlight of this issue.  So far one of the more compelling Marvel events by a long shot.  When the bomb drops I truly hope this series lives up to the hype.

POSTED BY MIKE N. -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Microreview [book]: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

Jemisin, N.K. The Killing Moon [Orbit, 2012]

The Meat

For a while, I feel like I have been meandering through a morass of similarity. Fantasy worlds based in a fairly commonplace Western European medieval setting, conservative in its representation of social mores, and an overall lack of nuance in dealing with gender or sexuality. Sometimes it seems like much more time is spent creating an interesting magic system and fascinating world than making sure the people inhabiting the world feel real to life. But at last, with N.K. Jemisin's The Killing Moon, I find a book that eschews the medieval European setting and treats social norms and mores in a fascinatingly complex manner. And it's damn good to boot, featuring fantastic prose and a compelling story.

The Killing Moon, the first book of Jemisin's Dreamblood Duology, takes place in the city-state of Gujaareh, a city based on ancient (New Kingdom era) Egypt. That much is clear even to the interested layman, with the desert setting, regular flooding cycles akin to those of the Nile River valley, the polytheistic society, and a Prince who serves as an intermediary between gods and men--not unlike the Pharaohs of old. And the relations between the lighter-skinned people of Gujaareh and the darker-skinned people of Kisua from the south in no small way parallels the connections of old between Egypt and the Nubian Kingdom of Kush.

And the world itself is fascinating, with magic serving as the cultural and political building blocks of Gujaareh society. Every member of society is required to contribute to the system by making monthly payments of dreams. These dreams are used by the Hetawa, priests of the dream goddess, as fuel for their healing magic. And since the most powerful dreams are found at the moment of death, an important subset of these priests, the Gatherers (or, as Jemisin calls them, ninja priests), sneak into peoples homes under the cover of darkness to extract dreamblood from those who are deemed corrupt or too elderly to contribute to society, killing them in the process.

But what makes this interesting is that these ninja priests do not see themselves as assassins. Ehiru, the protagonist and the greatest Gatherer in Gujaareh, does not assassinate people for material gain. He is a true believer, intending the best for his victims by sending them to reside in the dreamworld of their dream goddess. He kills those deemed corrupt to save them from an even worse fate. And he kills the elderly to ease their pain and to allow them to experience true bliss in the world of the goddess. The Gatherers enter their dreams and ease them into Ina-Karekh, the Hetawa vision of paradise. But regardless of motives, it is a real joy to watch these priests sneak into homes in the dead of night to send their targets to a better place. This is what motivated the novel in the first place. As Jemisin herself notes, "I just wanted to write about ninja priests."

The Killing Moon centers around three stories. The first story is that of the Gatherer Ehiru--the greatest of the Hetawa priests. Ehiru mishandles an assassination, which launches him on a journey that pits him against everything he has come to accept in the world. The second story is that of Ehiru's young apprentice, Nijiri, a boy full of youthful ambition and energy who is ever eager to prove himself to Ehiru. And the third story revolves around Kisuan diplomat and spy Sunandi, who seeks to uncover a plot that could threaten the very fabric of Gujaareen and Kisuan society.

While on the one hand a political thriller that strikes at the heart, the story at the same time is one of character growth, especially with the two younger characters, Nijiri and Sunandi. Nijiri tries to balance his desire to become a Gatherer with his growing sexual desire for Ehiru, one that can never be fulfilled owing to their priestly vows. And Sunandi is forced to spend time with priests of a religion she hates, only to develop a more complex and nuanced take in the process.

But what I really appreciated was the nuanced social mores. Sunandi is by no means a repressed and oppressed woman. She uses her charms and sexuality for personal and for state gain. She will let no man browbeat her into submission. And although she makes mistakes, she is forced to make real decisions that have consequences not just for herself, but for her people. Nijiri, on the other hand, is forced to deal with his own desires for his master. Although his priestly vows (as well as his respect for Ehiru) inhibit him from acting on those desires, what makes this compelling is the very fact that society accepts these homosexual desires as natural, not deviant.

In the end, this is an engaging and evocative tale, one I cannot recommend strongly enough. I found so little to dislike that the only quibble I can think of is that I wish Jemisin provided a map to highlight the world's broader geography. The Killing Moon was such an engaging read that I am surprised it did not win the Nebula Award in 2012. Highly recommended.

The Math

*No penalties or bonuses awarded today...

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 "Standout in its category"

Read about our scoring system here. And remember, we categorically reject grade inflation!

POSTED BY: Jemmy, a SF/F fanatic, a failed wall gazer, and a Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Microreview [book]: Half Way Home, by Hugh Howey

Howey, Hugh. Half Way Home. 2010 (Print version: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013).
Buy the e-book here (on sale, apparently!).

The Meat

The short version: it's good enough, but Wool it ain't! 

My comments below, which might seem rather harsh at times, should be interpreted in light of the fact that I think the world of Wool and the subsequent books in that series; I wonder what I might have thought of this, apparently Howey's first effort, had I not had my expectations ratcheted up into the stratosphere by reading Wool first and expecting the same level of brilliance here. On the other hand, must we remain eternally chained by chronology, and be forever barred from unfavorably comparing, say, Picasso's Blue Period with his later work because it somehow isn't fair to judge an artist by earlier, more tentative efforts—will only a later masterpiece do?
But wait! Perhaps we should question the entire notion that the career of an artist necessarily follows a shaky/tentative early work->mature/brilliant later work trajectory? Isaac Asimov, somewhere in the Foundation series, had his mouthpiece emphasize the fact that (he believes) scientists are only really brilliant, only capable of exploding existing paradigms and so forth, when they're in their twenties; after that, creativity plummets, and scientists tend to settle down into more conventional patterns of thought. Might that not be equally true of literary artists?
And we should probably distinguish between two different types of quality, while we're at it: stylistic/writing quality versus the quality of ideas a given work presents. Elsewhere I tried to make the case that a writer's first work is likely to be very high in the latter, ideational category, especially when contrasted with sequels set in the same world or following the same characters. But as for the former, a first book might not be particularly well-written, since in this technical sense, at least, writers (or painters, etc.) often have plenty of room to improve over the course of their careers.
So why do we read books/look at paintings/watch movies? There are doubtless many reasons, but I at least give more weight to the content/ideas of a given work than its technical perfection. I'm not trying to deny there can be plenty of pleasure in a well-crafted but essentially vapid story (I enjoy Michael Bay movies: Q.E.D.!), or that ideas by themselves are somehow more entrancing than ideas when packaged in slick action scenes or what have you (I like the breathtakingly beautiful first eight minutes or so of Melancholia a lot more than the equally philosophically fascinating but less visually stunning rest of the movie, because I like pretty things!). I only mean to say that, on balance, ideas are (or should be?) more important than technical wizardry.
Since it was his first book, we might expect Half Way Home to be somewhat inferior in writing style and so forth to Howey's later works like Wool, and sure enough, it is—the dialogue is a bit less snappy, the descriptions less vivid/emotive. But great ideas can cover all manner of slight imperfections like that. Trouble is, I'm not sure the ideas at the center of the story are great enough to do so; they certainly aren't *as* great as those behind the Silo saga.
That said, the story is certainly engaging, and plenty interesting. It concerns one possible (if, I would say, rather improbable) model for human colonization of other worlds, when such colonization is under the purview of an entity eerily similar to the villain placing 13th on the AFI's all-time list. One can detect a glimpse or two of Howey's brilliant 'What if...' approach to science fiction (brought to glorious fruition in Wool) here, as many of the parameters of the story are fascinating. But the characters, particularly the first-person narrator, don't have quite the vitality of our Wool-en friends, and their trials and tribulations are consequently less emotionally engaging. Moreover, I found it quite difficult to swallow the idea that some humans would willingly ally themselves with "Colony" (the AI) after seeing such stark evidence of what it was capable of (think Shia LaBoeuf's Eagle Eye, not the much better Asimov story on which it is extremely loosely based), even though it's an interesting thought experiment.
Does all this mean that you should skip this and go straight to the Silo saga? Not at all—you should do what I say, not what I did, and read this one first, *then* graduate to the main course in Wool.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for conjuring up an intriguing thought experiment about human colonization

Penalties: -1 for not managing anything like the polished style (or, more importantly, the brilliant ideas at the heart) of Wool
Nerd coefficient: 7/10 "An enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws"

[Remember that a seven from NOAF is practically the equivalent of a 10/10 from many of the more effusive review sites or reviewers; see here for more information on our scoring system.]

Brought to you by Zhaoyun, sf/f book and movie aficionado and main cast member of Nerds of a Feather since early 2013.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Is Amazon Engaging in Predatory Behavior?

In light of both its legal victories and underwhelming earnings reports, it should come as no surprise that retail giant Amazon would seek to increase revenue and profit in its core bookselling business. One element of that has been to negotiate a better deal from publishers. Yet it has, just as predictably, faced resistance from major publishers—most of which have their own financial problems. Recently, an impasse in negotiations between Amazon and Hachette has apparently led the former to sanction the latter.

This has created a firestorm. The great bulk of commentary has blamed Amazon for employing “bully” tactics. Writers in particular have been up in arms, alleging that Amazon’s tactics target them unfairly. But how predatory is Amazon being? I’ll break down its individual practices and assess each one as either “fair practice” or “predatory,” and score appropriately.

Moreover, in the spirit of our “math-based” analysis, I’ll add scores for how fair or how predatory each practice is, according to the following scale:

1.00: Completely Fair
0.75 – 0.99: Highly Fair
0.50 – 0.74: Fair
0.25 – 0.49: Predatory
0.01 – 0.24: Highly Predatory
0.00: Completely Predatory

The Individual Practices

1. Eliminating discounts on Hachette titles

Assessment: Fair/predatory: 0.75

Reason: Amazon is not obliged to discount anything. It does so to spur sales, but at the expense of profit per unit sold. If it doesn’t discount new releases, well, that just puts its prices on par with those you might find at the local bookshop. While Hachette books may lose sales relative to those from other publishers, all Amazon is doing here is selling them at the price recommended by Hachette.

Suggesting customers look at books sold at a lower price instead (from rival publishers) is a bit below the belt, but it’s not all that different from a bricks-and-mortar store having a special display shelf for discounted books. A bit different, but not completely different.

2. Making customers wait 1-4 weeks before shipping Hachette books

Assessment: Fair/predatory: 0.33

Reason: Amazon has claimed to at least one author that this is Hachette’s fault, but I don’t believe that for a second. After all, Hachette is more dependent on Amazon than Amazon is on Hachette. It’s far more likely that Amazon is just not making the same effort to get Hachette books into customers’ hands as they would with, say, Macmillan.

In one sense, this is just as fair as eliminating discounts—after all, Amazon doesn’t have to get you books quickly; you just expect them to, because they usually do. On the other hand, this practice is hurting authors, as well as customers in areas that aren’t well serviced by bricks-and-mortar shops.

3. Click-baiting customers seeking Hachette titles only to present them with #s 1 and 2

Assessment: Fair/predatory: 0.00

Reason: Say you want to buy Michael Sullivan’s Theft of Swords. Google it and guess who turns up as search result #1? That may be innocuous in and of itself, but at one point, if you clicked, you'd come to an Amazon page that promptly asked if you'd prefer to buy something discounted. And published by someone other than Hachette. The banners appear to have been taken down now, which is a good thing. But who knows for how long...

To be fair, Amazon does have its defenders on this front, most notably author and self-publishing evangelist Hugh Howey, who argues that Amazon is behaving no differently from other companies embroiled in contractual negotations, citing a Barnes & Noble directing to cease stocking Simon & Schuster products (Howey’s publisher).

But as David Strietwell writes in the New York Times:

There is, however, a big difference between those earlier incidents and what is happening now. Independent bookstores broke with tradition in 2012 and decided not to sell books published by Amazon. That was their choice. And if customers chose as a result not to shop there, that was their choice. It’s a free country.

But Amazon is not saying it is dropping all Hachette books. Instead, it’s as if Barnes & Noble had run ads for Mr. Howey’s “Wool” last spring and then, when an eager customer came in to buy it, said there were no copies available but how about a copy of Philip K. Dick’s “The Penultimate Truth” — another dystopia about a community living underground — instead?

That sounds like bait and switch, something the Federal Trade Commission frowns on as deceptive.

Final Tally

Fair/Predatory Quotient: 0.36.
Conclusion: Predatory.

There’s no doubt in my mind—Amazon appears to be engaging in predatory behavior. And it’s not the first time or the only area in which they act that way. As our indie publishing columnist Dean pointed out last year, Amazon can be as difficult to deal with for independent authors as those published by conglomerates Amazon has disputes with.

Besides, there’s no doubt it hurts authors more than anyone. When I asked popular fantasy author Michael Sullivan (published by Hachette imprint Orbit Books) how he felt about the whole situation, he had this to say:

Of course I wish it wasn't going on, it's not good for anyone—Amazon, Hachette, the readers, or myself. The hard facts are Amazon bullies the publishers, and the publishers bully the's all about who has the power, and the end result is the author always gets the short end of the stick. While there is a lot of speculation about what is at stake, I'm afraid that ebook royalty share is probably one of the things on the table. If this is true, I'm looking at a pay cut if Amazon negotiates a better margin (ebook royalties are based on net paid to the publishers, whereas print royalties are based on list price). I wish the ecosystem were structured to reward the content creator, but that's just not going to happen. The big boys will always take the lion's share, and the authors will always get the leftover crumbs. We (authors) are just caught in the middle and powerless in such situations. The only thing we can control is how our future books will be released. For books already signed, we just have to sit and wait to figure out what our new cut will be...I fear it will be lower.

In a sense, this incident is an almost inevitable result of the U.S. Department of Justice siding with the category-killing behemoth over the financially vulnerable cartel that is Big Publishing (something I warned about way back when). I mean, why not force your supplies to tow the line if you have the means at your disposal?

Anti-trust legislation is supposed to disincentivize that kind of thing, and once the DOJ took sides all those disincentives went out the proverbial window. This incident is just an unfriendly reminder of what Amazon’s unchecked growth in market share means for the publishing industry. But you can’t really blame Amazon for wanting to keep growing, and to do so with the fewest encumbrances possible. That’s what profit-seeking entities do.

That just serves to remind why it’s so important that competitors—independent booksellers, Powell's, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones and ebook venders like iBooks, Kobo, Weightless and Smashwords, among others—remain financially viable. A monopolized market is an unhealthy market for everyone other than the monopolizing entity, where terms can be set exclusively by it and everyone either goes along or suffers. And if the DOJ is really committed to ensuring healthy competition, it might just want to take a closer look at what's happening right now, which does kinda sorta look at an anti-trust problem. 

So as much as I love Amazon Prime—and I do—I’m pretty disgusted by their role in this affair, and like most others who want publishing to remain financially viable, call on Amazon to disavow predatory tactics and seek leverage in less destructive ways.

UPDATE (5/23/14): From the NYT:

[Amazon] began refusing orders late Thursday for coming Hachette books, including J.K. Rowling’s new novel. The paperback edition of Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon” — a book Amazon disliked so much it denounced it — is suddenly listed as “unavailable.”

In some cases, even the pages promoting the books have disappeared. Anne Rivers Siddons’s new novel, “The Girls of August,” coming in July, no longer has a page for the physical book or even the Kindle edition. Only the audio edition is still being sold (for more than $60). Otherwise it is as if it did not exist.

Microreview [book]: The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

Black, Benjamin. The Black-Eyed Blonde [Henry Holt, 2014]

I confess that I am a bit of a Raymond Chandler fanatic. I've read each of the seven Marlowe novels at least twice, and some several times more than that. I consider Chandler to be one of the most significant novelists of the Twentieth Century, and easily the best stylist genre fiction has ever produced.

Over the years, I've read a number of homages to the master, from lighthearted spoofs to more serious fare. The best of these, like Jonathan Lethem's science fictional Gun, with Occasional Music or the middle chapter in Ariel Winter's The Twenty-Year Death, adopt a playful tone and a respectful distance from the author whose work they celebrate but, really, can never hope to equal.

The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black, otherwise known as Irish novelist John Banville, does not have that luxury. After all, it is not an homage, but a new Marlowe novel. Thus Banville faced the distinct challenge of producing something that would evoke Chandler but not just make you wish you were reading The Big Sleep.

The last time someone tried to do this was in 1989, when crime novelist Robert B. Parker completed Chandler's unfinished manuscript for Poodle Springs. It quickly became a joke among hardboiled fiction aficionados, with Parker memorably dismissed by Martin Amis for having turned Marlowe into "an affable goon." But there was good reason to think Banville might succeed where Parker failed. After all, while Parker is best described as a likeable, forward-thinking crime hack, Banville is a bona fide literary rock star. If anyone was going to do this right, it was going to be someone Don DeLilo once described as writing "dangerous and clear-running prose" with "a grim gift of seeing people's souls."

On that note, let me begin by saying that The Black-Eyed Blonde is orders of magnitude better than Poodle Springs. It's a crisply, efficiently-written and briskly-paced detective story set in Marlowe's Los Angeles. While Banville isn't exactly breaking new stylistic ground here, the book is an undeniably well-crafted and smart bit of hardboiled detective fiction.

Yet Chandler did not write "well-crafted and smart bits of hardboiled detective fiction"--he wrote artistically significant literature that wore the clothes of hardboiled detective fiction, and this is not that. Banville by his own admission views crime fiction as "cheap." And a lot of it is. But Chandler's fiction is anything but, and in the end The Black-Eyed Blonde does unfortunately feel like a cheapened rendition of the genuine article. Nearly every sentence Chandler wrote spawned a cliche, and at times it feels like Banville is channeling the cliches rather than the authentic item. Banville's Marlowe is too direct, too reliant on simile over metaphor and, well, acts a bit too much like Sam Spade.

So did I like it? Sure--though I didn't love it. Perhaps, if I'm feeling reflective, I might admit that I never could. But this is only partially my problem. After all, not only does Banville try to sell us on the authenticity of his Marlowe, but he fuddles with Chandler's penultimate achievement, The Long Goodbye (I won't spoil the book by saying how). This is sacrilege for someone like me, and there are enough of us to make me think that The Black-Eyed Blonde would have been better off as homage--starring someone else who just looks and talks like Marlowe, but isn't supposed to be Marlowe. Because this isn't Marlowe anyways.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for being a good homage to Chandler's Marlowe.

Penalties: -1 for "but it's just not Marlowe"; -1 for thinking The Long Goodbye needed or even wanted a sequel.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10. "Enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore."


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator (2012).

Friday, May 16, 2014

AiIP: Takin' Care of Business

Small commercial first: I am doing a reading in Snoqualmie, WA Saturday, May 17th at 5pm, at the Black Dog. If you're in Western Washington, you should come!

Ben Franklin knew how to take care of his business
A big part of the appeal of being an author-publisher, I think, is that you get to do it all yourself. You get to pick the cover art, you get to pick which editor you use, you get to choose how much it costs, you get to choose where it gets sold, and on and on and on.

Only, suddenly your job description reads more publisher than author. This really hit home over the last month-plus, with the Kickstarter campaign and prepping the second edition. I knew my time and energy would be elsewhere, but still it was basically a month with very minimal, you know, writing.

Conventional wisdom says write every day and writer's write, and that's as it should be. But the modern author calls for more, and frequently it's a delicate balancing act. Sometimes, it's all writing, all the time. Series One was that way- nearly a solid year of writing and editing. 2013 was about publishing. So for (the rest of) 2014, I think more balance is in order.

I had initially kind of meant for this to be a "here's a great way to do it" post, but honestly, it varies tremendously from person to person, so it really wouldn't be helpful. Heck, it even varies within each person depending on where they're at and what needs doing. And you might not even care. I don't write, Dean, you say, I just want a good book to read. Hopefully that is provided for you. There is a lot that goes into bringing it to you.

For more about that, I asked Zachary Bonelli, who is an author and the founder of Fuzzy Hedgehog Press, to share his indie publishing experience:

Building a Small Press For Fun and Profit

Fuzzy Hedgehogs FTW
How many times have you seen a book review site that says something to the effect of, “we’ll review books by small presses, but not self-published works”?
Well, there’s some good news about small presses. If you have at least one other person you can team up with, it’s fairly easy to quality for its definition.
You need to make less than $50 million a year. Likely not a problem. And you need to publish ten or fewer title per year. Also likely not a problem.
The kicker is that you can’t just publish your own work. You have to pay to acquire publication rights to one or more authors’ works and publish them. Here’s where your good writer friends come in. If you trust these individuals enough to go into business with them, then you’ve got all the necessary ingredients for a small press that functions internally more like a collaborative writer’s group with book industry connections.
As with any route to publication, there are pros and cons. As a self-publisher turned small press owner, here’s what I’ve discovered.

Small Press vs. Independent Author: Pros

·         Small presses get access to book distributors, Barnes and Noble and independent bookstores
·         Small presses get access to book reviewers who only deal with small presses
·         Small presses get the opportunity to one day help aspiring authors achieve their dreams, too, should your press grow big enough.

Small Press vs. Independent Author: Cons

·         Starting and building any business (including a small press) is a vast time and money sinkhole.
·         Your writing time will be at least partially compromised.

Small Press vs. Agent/Traditional Publisher Contract: Pros

·         Similar to being indie, being the operator of the small press give you complete creative control over:
o   Cover Art
o   Content
o   Editorial Review
o   Marketing Decisions

Small Press vs. Agent/Traditional Publisher Contact: Cons

·         Under the traditional route, you will retain many hours of your life for creative endeavors that you otherwise would have had to spend on ebook creation, print layout and marketing
·         You will also get access to your publisher’s marketing network, though the extent of this gain is highly publisher-dependent


·         Agent/Traditional Deal
o   Money will come in modest lump sums. Your hourly wage won’t be great, but you’ll be in the black.
·         Independent Author
o   Money comes in as a trickle from online vendors. You probably get to buy yourself a coffee or maybe a pay a bill on your writing.
o   Occasional big expenses (cover art, interior layout, etc.) will eat into your personal budget if you let them, but other funding sources (like Kickstarter) exist.
·         Small Press
o   A business must be presented professionally. Expect to have to shell out for cover art, software, printing, etc. You will spend most of what you make reinvesting in your business. You will also likely end up investing a lot of your own money in your business, too.

If the small press option is appealing for you, I recommend you walk through the steps below to make sure you’re ready.

1. Do you have just one book in you, or many?

My mind is kind of a sprawling multiverse of possibilities. I literally don’t have time to write all my book ideas down. Small presses don’t run on one book. They run on many. If you’ve got that one book your passionate about, and you don’t have other ideas simmering on your mind’s backburner, just waiting to be written, a small press is probably not a great idea.

2. Do you have a business license?

In the United States, this should be a fairly simple endeavor. Any individual can start a sole-proprietorship, and while you’re making less than a couple thousand dollars a year, this should have a negligible impact on how you do your taxes.
I can’t speak to the business license practices for every state, but if the other forty-nine are anything like Washington, this should fairly easy to register and establish (total investment: 2-3 hours).
Your small business retail license will also come in handy if you want to sell your books at conventions.

3. How well do you know/trust your friends? How reliable are they?

Going into business together is a big deal. Especially once contracts get involved. These should not be people you’ve talked to at writing group a few times, but people you know really, really well.
Speaking of contracts, be ready to create those. Be comfortable seeking legal advise on correct wording and situations to protect yourself against. Learn about what constitutes healthy and unhealthy contract practices.

3. Are you ready to present yourself to bookstores and book distributors as a business?

This is true of self-publishing, but it is even more true when you start a small press. Be prepared to begin the slow and demanding work of building up a network of individuals in the book business—owners of small bookstores, the Community Relations Managers at Barnes and Noble stores, and individuals who interface with small presses at book distributors.
You will need to have face to face conversations with these people. You will need to be comfortable walking into their offices and presenting yourself as a business. Are you ready to do that?

4. Who will print your books? What format do they want for print files? How much money will you make per book?

The per-unit profit on a book is going to be very low, though it gets higher the bigger the run. Of course, a bigger run means a bigger monetary investment on your part. Figure out how much you will have to invest in advance.
Most printers should want PDF files to print books from. Adobe InDesign is the industry-standard software for creating a book layout. Do you or one of your colleagues know this software? Can anyone learn to use it with high proficiency?

5. How will you generate eBooks? What is your digital marketing strategy?

Do you have software that can generate eBooks for you, like Scrivener? If you or someone working with you is a programmer, you could go the route of building your own eBooks from scratch with a tool like Sigil. All eBooks you generate, regardless of method, should pass ePubCheck (to ensure that it works on all devices). Some vendors, like Smashwords, enforce compliance with ePubCheck.

6. What are your business values and ethics?

I would encourage you to think about this beyond the all-too-common answer of most businesses in American society, which is: “To rake in the moola. Duh.”
For example, my company, Fuzzy Hedgehog Press, refuses to participate in Amazon’s KDP Select program, because one of our business values is that a healthy and vibrant marketplace contains numerous entities with a diverse selection of goods for sale. Since the KDP Select program, in my opinion, seeks to undermine a diverse marketplace by restricting the distribution of content to multiple web platforms (KDP Select enabled books must be exclusive to Amazon), the program seems to me to violate one of Fuzzy Hedgehog Press’s core business values, hence we do not participate.
He’s another business value: “Fuzzy Hedgehog Press wants customers to be able to access our books from as many venues and in as many different formats as possible.” All of our eBooks are available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, iTunes, Google Play and Smashwords. You can buy ePubs and PDFs of our books directly from us. You can find our print books on IndieBound and numerous online vendors.
Knowing your business values helps you better communicate to customers what they’re getting and how they can expect to be treated by you, and when you’re running a small business, building customer trust is crucial.


Starting a small press represents a huge time and money investment compared to other publishing options, but more potential rewards. Not only do you own all the creative control (like independent publishing), but you gain access to book distributors and bookstores (like traditional publishing). The kicker is you have to do all the work and build all the relationships yourself. If that sounds more fun than scary, then I encourage you to explore the option further. If the kind of small press you would want to publish your books does not exist, you might just be able to build it yourself.

Zachary Bonelli is owner and operator of Fuzzy Hedgehog Press. He’s also a writer with two published books, Voyage Embarkation and Insomnium. His third book, Alterra, is due out this summer.



Dean is the author of the 3024AD series of science fiction stories. You can read his other ramblings and musings on a variety of topics (mostly writing) on his blog.
  He is also an aficionado of good drinks (extra dry martini; onions, not olives), good food and fine dress. When not holed up in his office tweeting obnoxiously writing, he can be found watching or playing sports, or in his natural habitat of a bookstore.
  He also has an unhealthy obsession with old movies and goes through phases where he plays video games before kind of forgetting they exist.
  Dean lives in the Pacific Northwest and likes the rain, thank you very much.