Laura Resnick on Cover Art

MisCookLaura Resnick has authored 6 fantasy-detective-comedy novels (the Esther Diamond series from Daw), 3 fantasy novels (the Silerian trilogy from Tor), 15 romance novels (from Silhouette), many short stories (mostly in DAW anthologies), several essays on print and screen fiction, and “Rejection, Romance, and Royalties: The Wacky World of a Working Writer.”

She won the Campbell award for best writer and was a finalist for the Rita award. She won the Romantic Times Magazine award 3 times. She writes “The Mad Scribbler,” a monthly opinion column for Nink. For the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America’s bulletin, she wrote a quarterly opinion column, “The Filthy Pro.” She wrote a monthly column, “The Comely Curmedgeon,” for Nink. She has served as member of the board of directors, president elect, and president of Novelists, Inc.

Laura Resnick has done extensive research, including interviews with authors and art directors, on how cover art is developed and how it has a drastic affect on sales and careers. Her current artist, for the Esther Diamond series, is Dan Dos Santos, a 5 time Hugo nominee and Chesley winner.

In this interview with Diabolical Plots‘ Carl Slaughter, she provides the inside story on cover art.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: You’ve done extensive research on how cover art affects sales figures and author careers. Give us some examples of cover art that tanked sales and delayed careers and some examples of how cover art moved a book off the shelf and fast tracked a career.

Laura Resnick 1LAURA RESNICK: An editor once cited Barbara Michaels aka Elizabeth Peters to me as an example of a writer whose career was held back for years by bad covers. Peters died last year (peacefully at home, at the age of 85) after a career which included many New York Times bestselling novels. But that success came some 20 years and many well-reviewed books into her career, and there was a noticeable shift in packaging that accompanied her well-deserved success. For years, publishers were giving her muddy, generic covers that conveyed nothing of the tone of her books, and she developed her audience strictly on her own merits via word-of-mouth, with no help at all from her dreadful packaging. Then if you look at the packaging she started getting around the mid-1990s, you can see a definite shift in quality of the covers, which accompanied her rising sales. In particular, the eventual packaging of her Amelia Peabody series (the early books, poorly packaged, were also repackaged with the new look) was a winner, and the series was commercially very successful for years (she was working on another Amelia Peabody book when she died).

In my own case, my Esther Diamond series had a disastrous launch with (among other problems) a hideously inappropriate cover from Luna Books. Esther Diamond is a comedic urban fantasy series. To give you some idea of how off-target that cover for book #1, Disappearing Nightly, was: The year that book was released, I held that cover up for an audience at a workshop on book covers and packaging, and I asked them what kind of book they thought this cover was for. The two audience members who got the most agreement form everyone else? One thought it was a 1970s showbiz memoir, and the other thought it was a thriller about a hooker. When no one looking at an Esther Diamond cover can tell that it’s (1) urban fantasy, (2) comedy, or (3) a series, that represents a very serious cover problem. The book tanked and Luna dumped me (and so did my fourth literary agent,don’t even get me started on agents). Fortunately, DAW Books was willing to take a chance on book #2 of this badly mishandled series. They packaged it wonderfully, revived the series, subsequently acquired and repackaged book #1, we’re about to release book #7, and I’m contracted through at least book #10,of a series that crashed and got dumped after one book because of disastrous packaging at its previous house.

I think Charlaine Harris (author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, aka the “Trueblood” series) is an example of someone who got a boost from good packaging. Harris was a longtime midlist career writer who developed the idea for the Sookie Stackhouse novels in an attempt to use her strengths as a writer to achieve the commercial success which had so far eluded her. (Obviously, she succeeded, becoming a #1 hardcover NYT bestseller with this series.) Ace Books launched the first book in the series, Dead Until Dark, with a very distinctive cover. I remember picking up that book years ago because of the cover (which was impressive packaging, since I don’t read vampire novels). Harris was doing good work on a very commercial project, but the distinctive packaging really helped that series stand out early on.

 

CARL: Who makes decisions about cover art and who should be making those decisions?

PolterheistLAURA: At large publishing conglomerates (ex. Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, MacMillan, and Simon & Schuster), too often the people making decisions about packaging are unfamiliar with the book or the author’s work,and therefore also unfamiliar with the author’s audience, who are the people the cover needs to attract. I have even been told anecdotes by wearily amused art directors about book covers being directed by senior people in the corporate hierarchy who don’t read books and who have no art or design background whatsoever, but who, for one reason or another, want cover control. To give just one example of how truly absurd the process can get, one art director at a major house told me that for a year or two, most of that company’s major releases had red covers because the Chief Financial Officer’s girlfriend liked red, and he wanted to make her happy.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, depending on just how small a small press is, art direction may be in the hands of one person who is also editor, marketer, publisher, and business manager. This can go well if that person is brilliant at art direction,and badly if he’s not.
Ideally, what you want in your cover artist/illustrator, designer, and/or art director are people who know art and design, know the book or the author’s work, and understand what look attracts the author’s audience. Art directors and cover artists have told me that the more people that get involved in the process, the harder it is to come out of the maelstrom with a good cover. It’s a basic “too many cooks spoil the broth” issue,especially if most of those people don’t know the book and don’t know design.

Which is not to say, however, that no one else’s input is ever valuable. One senior editor who was directing her own imprint, for example, told me about an instance where someone on the publisher’s sales force contacted her to object to a cover, and his advice was probably career-saving for the author (he had good reason to believe that a major retail chain would refuse to carry that cover, and so the package was rethought). On the other hand, the same editor also had numerous incidents of sales reps emphatically offering cover advice on the basis of what would appeal to them,rather than (and in direct opposition to) what would appeal to the audience whom the books in her imprint were aimed at.

 

CS: Are art directors qualified to make decisions about marketing? Are authors qualified to make decisions about art?

DN Cover DAWLR: Well, “marketing” is a broad term, involving a lot of areas unrelated to the book cover. It is, in essence, the question of how to get lots of people who are likely to enjoy the book to pick it up in the first place.

For the past few decades, book covers (and everything else in the publishing process) tended to be aimed at middlemen,distributors and retailers,rather than at readers. Booksellers, distributors, and head buyers for the major chains are publishers’ customers (particularly big conglomerate publishers). So decisions about manuscript acquisition and cover design have tended to be made with those type of businesses in mind. eBooks and internet shopping are now affecting this process by eliminating some of those layers and elevating the importance of the reader’s reaction to a book cover. Additionally, covers online have to catch the reader’s eye in a much smaller format (thumbnail size, rather than physical book size), which is also affecting design decisions. So the cover world, like the entire book world, is in flux these days.

That said, an art director can package a book brilliantly if she’s a brilliant art director for books, and she can only do a mediocre or poor job if she’s mediocre or poor at packaging books. Additionally, any art director is packaging a lot of books every year, on a tight schedule,and no one is brilliant all the time, for every book, especially when she has limited time to work on it; this is why even companies with mostly good covers nonetheless release some frogs-and-dogs every year.

Authors have typically been omitted from participation in the traditional book cover process at most publishing houses. This is an example of the dismissive contempt that most publishers exercise toward writers, who are usually treated as something between a tedious encumbrance and a mutant sewer rat.

Admittedly, in some cases. omitting the author from the cover process is understandable. There are authors who fixate on irrelevancies (the heroine’s hairstyle isn’t right; the hero is too muscular; the dragon doesn’t really look like that; etc.) or who have One Sole Idea for the cover and are angry at any deviation from it (even if the idea is unworkable or just plain bad).

A book cover is supposed to be an effective advertisement for your book, not a perfectly detailed representation of a scene exactly as it appeared in the author’s head. An author can only be productive in the cover process if she understands that and acts accordingly.

That said, the function of the book cover is to attract the author’s audience (her existing readers and readers who’ll like her work if they can be convinced to pick up and open the book),and who knows the author’s audience better than the author herself, for goodness sake? She is the person who is attracting that audience with her stories, book after book,not some random bystander who has no idea what her audience is interested in! She probably also is her audience, since most writers are writing books they’d like to read.

There are authors who don’t want to be involved in the cover process (though they are increasingly rare). But any author who wants to be involved should be given that chance (and at most publishing houses, is still not allowed that opportunity), because she understands her audience better than anyone else in the publishing process.

 

CS: How can an author get involved in the art process and ensure their books get good covers – or at least don’t get bad covers – without alienating relationships at the publisher?

UnsympMagLR: Not alienating relationships at the publishing house is a matter of professionalism in all things, not just covers. And, frankly, I’ve worked with a couple of publishers in the past which are so unprofessional and so contemptuous of authors that there’s really no way to get anything done without alienating them. (Also, in retrospect, I don’t regret the instances where I alienated publishing staff in order to protect my books. I regret the few instances where I foolishly backed off on protecting my books in order to try to preserve relationships with publishers; this turned out to be the wrong decision in every instance. When a book is handled badly, sales suffer, and so the relationship is destroyed anyhow,because publishers publish for money, not love, friendship, loyalty, or honor.)

In terms of the cover process, some general practical tips for writers: Inform your editor at the start (and with occasional reminders along the way) that you want to be involved in the cover process. (If you’ve done this before, present examples, so that they can see you actually wind up with good covers when you’re involved.)

Present a shortlist of cover artists (3-6) as suggestions for your cover art; and ask the editor who the publisher is thinking of. Try to establish a dialogue about who will do the cover, because getting the right artist will eliminate a lot of potential problems.

If they’re going to bypass art and go strictly with design (or design and stock photos), then present a package (ex. 4-8) of sample covers that convey the sort of style/tone you think would suit your book, and ask their opinion, feedback, or counter suggestions. They may ignore you but, again, work on establishing a dialogue, on presenting yourself as someone who should be kept in the loop and with whom ideas should be discussed.

Ask to see the artist’s sketches (and you should probably ask fairly often, if it’s a house or editor likely to omit you) or the designer’s early concepts. This is crucial, because this is the stage at which you’ve got the best chance of having your input included,while they’re planning the thing. (Too many writers just wait until they see the final cover and then object; this is way too late to voice an opinion, folks. It’s like saying after the house is built that you’d like the kitchen to be in front, not in back; at that late date, everyone’s just going to ignore you.)

After sketches or concept have been approved, ask to see the preliminary art (an artist will usually do some minor revisions to the art, as requested) or near-final design, which is another stage at which you can make suggestions.

Always be constructive and make suggestions. Just complaining and telling them what you don’t like doesn’t give anyone in the process anything to work with.

If there’s an artist, give him an e-file or Pinterest link (early on, before sketches) with lots of images. Artists are visual people, so don’t bore him with tons of text, show him visuals. I provide cover artists with all sorts of images that represent the “look” of my books, a visual portrayal of the world that’s inside my head, imagery that’s related to the text, pictures and covers that convey the tone I think would suit my cover, etc. For example, for the cover of Unsympathetic Magic, I sent artist Dan Dos Santos loads of images from my research on Vodou; for The Misfortune Cookie, I sent him the photos I’d taken on my research trips to Chinatown and copies of the Chinese calligraphy I’d been researching for the book. If you don’t have direct connection to the artist, then pass this material to him through your editor,and follow up to make sure the editor gave it to him.

Always remember, the final cover is a done deal. If that’s the first time you’re looking at it, it’s too late to change anything. So get into the process early. (However, if you hate the final cover so much you want to kill yourself, then make some design suggestions; they won’t change art at that late date, but they might change design, which is an easier fix. Might, I say.)

 

CS: Can authors afford to commission their own art? Should they? Can they find free cover art on the Internet, and if so, should they use it?

VamparazziLR: Authors are doing this in the self-publishing world,and in many cases, very effectively and successfully. In the traditional publishing world, though, you don’t want to do this. One, your publisher won’t go along with it; two, why on earth would you sign a contract that funnels the majority of the income to a publisher if they aren’t going to pay for the packaging? If you want to do the packaging yourself, then self-publish. (For some examples of great self-published covers, check out some awards sites for “best of” indie and self-published cover art.)

 

CS: “The original cover art for your romance novels has lovers in passionate embrace. Later covers have a large heart shape and no people or people silhouetted. Why the big change?”
LR: The romance market changed a lot over time, and is still evolving,as all book markets do. The covers of couples passionately embracing (in which the woman is usually half-naked and the man is mostly shirtless) was a trademark look for the genre that was largely developed by an artist named Pino (an Italian immigrant, classically trained artist, and lovely man who passed away a couple of years ago) and Kensington Books (founded by the late Walter Zacharius). The half-naked babes on the covers were popular with the truckers and jobbers who stocked a lot of the wire-rack outlets where mass market paperbacks where sold 30 years ago, and it was a new, glamorous look that became very successful. However, by the 1990s, cloth covers for these books were very popular with readers, many of whom were uncomfortable being teased or smirked at for reading novels with these prurient covers, and the look was becoming less popular. Meanwhile, the superstore phenomenon (ex. Barnes & Noble) was coming to dominate bookselling, and romance novels needed shelf space in those stores as shopping/buying habits changed among readers. A more “bookstore-ish” look became desirable. So publishers gradually started experimenting with romantic looking covers that still visually identified the genre of the book, but without a semi-clad couple actually fornicating right there on the cover.

Some years after that, though, erotica became a big market. And then ebooks came along, and no one actually sees the cover of the book you’re reading on your e-tablet. These are two factors that have led to a portion of the market moving back toward more sexual covers,while other writers and subgenres in romance have adopted more mainstream looks, images that wouldn’t have appeared on a “romance novel” 20 years ago (ex. A beach chair by the ocean; a cafÃ’ table; two hands clasped; etc.) So the whole look of the genre keeps changing as the market continues evolving.

 

CS: I was captivated by the cover art for your Esther Diamond series. Particularly the cover of “Misfortune Cookie.” So exciting, so intriguing, so dramatic, so vivid. It looks a puzzle with pieces for the reader put together. I count at least 4 hands sticking out of that giant fortune cookie. And Esther is portrayed as being perpetually on the move as she solves the case. The cover of “Unsympathetic Magic” is also particularly eye catching. So who is your cover artist? Because, if I don’t succeed as a writer, I could always kidnap them and make a fortune selling their art!

DopplegangsterLR: The Esther Diamond covers are illustrated by the brilliant Dan Dos Santos. He’s a Chesley Award winner, a five-time Hugo Award nominee, and has won or been nominated for numerous other awards for his art. He’s also prolific, so you’ve probably seen his art on numerous other book covers.

DAW Books publishes the Esther Diamond series, and they’ve been terrific about including me in the cover process. We discussed artists early on, and Dan was top pick for each of us. He’s extremely creative with cover images, very imaginative, and he captures a perfect combination of menace, comedy, and sexiness in these covers. I typically review the cover sketches and the preliminary art with the publisher, and we develop a consensus on the feedback that my editor gives him. Dan also communicates directly with me about various specifics or questions. So the cover process for the Esther Diamond novels is a pleasure for me, rather than an exercise in helplessness and frustration, and the results have been consistently excellent.

 

CS: “Book #7 in the Esther Diamond series, “Abracadaver,” comes out in November. Any more lined up? Will you continue the series indefinitely?”

LR: There are three more unwritten Esther Diamond novels under contract at this time, and I hope to do many more after that. (I’m currently tearing my hair out trying to come up with a title for book #8.)

 

CS: Any advice to aspiring writers?

RRRLR: The market and the book/publishing world have changed a great deal during the years I’ve been writing professionally, yet I find that the two most common mistakes that aspiring writers make have not changed at all: not writing enough and not educating themselves about the business. And so my advice hasn’t changed, either. It’s still:

1. Write a lot. Practice your craft. Keep writing. And write still more after that. This is a craft, not divinely-inspired magic. It requires practice. Genius does not automatically flow forth from your muse-blessed fingertips. If you don’t expect to play a sonata perfectly the first time you ever sit down at a piano, then why would you expect to write an excellent story or novel the first time you sit down to write one? Talent is wildly romanticized and overrated, and the unglamorous qualities of plain old hard work and perseverance are perpetually underrated.

2. Educate yourself about the writing/publishing business and keep educating yourself. This is a competitive profession and a complex industry. You need to treat it as such if you want to succeed.
CHECK OUT LAURA RESNICK’S ESSAY ON COVER ART:

http://www.sff.net/people/laresnick/About%20Writing/Book%20Covers.htm

 

CHECK OUT LAURA RESNICK’S ESSAYS ON LITERARY AGENTS:

http://www.sff.net/people/laresnick/Excerpts/RWRexcerp.htm
http://www.ninc.com/blog/index.php/archives/author-agent-business-model

 

CHECK OUT LAURA RESNICK’S TESTIMONY ON BREAKING INTO WRITING::

First Book Friday: Laura Resnick

 

READ EXCERPTS OF LAURA RESNICK’S ESTHER DIAMOND SERIES::

http://www.sff.net/people/laresnick/Excerpts/ManMattExcerp.htm#MCexcerpt
http://www.sff.net/people/laresnick/Excerpts/UnsympMag.htm#Polterheist

http://www.sff.net/people/laresnick/Excerpts/Doppel.htm

 

LAURA RESNICK’S NONFICTION WRITING::

http://www.sff.net/people/laresnick/Other%20Writing/NonFic.htm

 

LAURA RESNICK’S HOME PAGE::

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

My Hugo Ballot 2013

written by David Steffen

I’ve spent the last several months reviewing award nominees. I decided to take it one step further and post the final decisions that I plan to post to my Hugo ballot with explanations (where I deem them necessary) about why I voted the way I did. I encourage anyone reading this to post discussion in the comments about how they voted, why I am wrong in my choices, etc.

What makes this more interesting is that the Hugo Awards use an instant runoff voting system. You rank your changes from 1-x, and can also set a number to the “No Award” category. You can find all the nitty gritty details at the Hugo Page explaining votes. I like the system a lot, much more than just a simple single-cast vote, because if your primary vote is for the least popular story, your other preferences still count for something.

If you are a nominee, keep in mind that I am just judging these based on my own preferences and, though I aim to not make my reviews mean, if you don’t want to hear my honest opinion of your work than you might want to skip this article.

For a full list of the nominees, see the original announcement on the Hugo site.

 

Best Novel

1. Redshirts, John Scalzi (Tor; Gollancz)
2. Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (DAW; Gollancz ’13)

Reasoning: I’ve only had time to read one book and a partial so far. I finished Redshirts and reviewed it here–I enjoyed it quite well, though there were some parts I didn’t like it was huge amounts of fun. I’ve started Throne of the Crescent Moon but haven’t finished it yet. Throne of the Crescent Moon is a solid book so far, but even though it has the strength of being set in a non-European based fantasy world, it still lacks the novelty that Redshirts has for me.

 

Best Novella

1. The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson (Tachyon Publications)
2. After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall by Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications)
3. San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats by Mira Grant (Orbit)
4. The Stars Do Not Lie by Jay Lake (Asimov’s, Oct-Nov 2012)
5. No Award

Reasoning: The only story that I disliked enough to prefer no award was “On a Red Station, Drifting” by Aliette de Bodard. See my Novella Hugo 2013 Review for more detail.

 

Best Novelette

1. In Sea-Salt Tears by Seanan McGuire (Self-published)
2. The Boy Who Cast No Shadow by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Postscripts: Unfit For Eden, PS Publications)
3. Rat-Catcher by Seanan McGuire (A Fantasy Medley 2, Subterranean)
4. The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi by Pat Cadigan (Edge of Infinity, Solaris)
5. No Award

Reasoning: The only story that I disliked enough to prefer no award was “Fade to White” by Catherynne M. Valente. See my Novelette Hugo 2013 Review for more detail.

 

Best Short Story

1. Immersion by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld, June 2012)

2. Mono No Aware by Ken Liu (The Future is Japanese, VIZ Media LLC)

3. No Award

Reasoning: The only story that I disliked enough to prefer no award was “Mantis Wives” by Kij Johnson. See my Short Story Hugo 2013 Review for more detail.

 

Best Graphic Story

1. Locke & Key, Vol. 5: Clockworks, Joe Hill, art by Gabriel Rodriguez (IDW)

2. Schlock Mercenary: Random Access Memorabilia Howard Tayler, colors by Travis Walton (Hypernode Media)

3. Saga, Volume One, Brian K. Vaughn, art by Fiona Staples (Image)

4. No Award

Reasoning: See my Graphic Story Hugo 2013 Review for more detail.

 

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

1. The Cabin in the Woods
2. The Avengers
3. The Hunger Games
4. Looper
5. The Hobbit

Reasoning: See my Dramatic Presentation, Long Form Hugo 2013 Review for more detail. I didn’t regret the time spent on any of the movies, so I gave them all a rank.

 

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

1. Game of Thrones, “Blackwater”, Written by George R.R. Martin, Directed by Neil Marshall. Created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (HBO)

Reasoning: I’ve never seen an episode of Dr. Who (gasp!), so I can’t comment on the show in any way. I’ve only ever seen the pilot episode of Fringe, which did not inspire me to watch further even though I was excited about the show from the trailers. But my wife and I are avid watchers of the Game of Thrones series. The show is really solid throughout, great writing, casting, special effects, set design, costume design, everything is really stellar. And this episode was an especially awesome episode of a major battle, with great tension and great action all around. Even if I had been familiar with any of the other nominees, it likely would’ve come on top.

I don’t have anything against any of the other four winning the award, so I’m not casting a “No Award” vote for this category. I’m sure that one of the Dr. Who episodes will win anyway.

 

Best Editor, Short Form

1. Neil Clarke
Neil does great work at Clarkesworld, and I look forward to every episode of Clarkesworld. I tend to have a bit of a polar reaction to Clarkesworld stories. I either love them or don’t get them at all. But when I love them, the stories are well worth listening to the others to get to. Also, as a writer, I appreciate Clarkesworld’s lightning-fast response times.

2. John Joseph Adams
I enjoy listening to the Lightspeed podcast as well. I tend to have a polar reaction to Lightspeed stories as well, and a similar appreciation for lightning-fast response times, and it was hard to decide which to rank higher. He and Neil are ranked close enough in my mind that it’s almost a toss-up between the two and I just gave Neil the edge because he’s been a head editor longer. It’s for cases like this that I really appreciate the instant runoff voting.

3. Stanley Schmidt
I am often not a huge fan of Analog stories, often too nuts-and-bolts for me. But they’ve published some really great ones. I will immediately buy any issue with Juliette Wade in the pages, because her linguistics-based SF stories that have run there are among my favorites. There was a Wade story last year, too, a definite bonus. This was Stanley’s last year as editor so it would be neat to see him win, but I’d rather vote based on who I thought was the best rather than nominating for warm fuzzies about the guy who retired.

4. Sheila Williams
I don’t read Asimov’s very regularly, simply because they don’t have a podcast. I have read good stories in the issues that I’ve bought, so I’d have no complaints about her winning.

Reasoning: I’m not familiar with Jonathan Strahan one way or the other. I’m not going to cast a vote for him, but I’m also not casting a “No Award” either.

 

Best Professional Artist

1. Dan Dos Santos
Dan Dos Santos is awesome. I have a print of his depiction of Moiraine Damodred on my office wall. I love his other art as well, such as his Warbreaker cover. He just has a very skilled hand and great eye. I rarely enjoy others’ cover art as much as his. His character art in particular is really great–the examples in the Hugo packet are good ones, especially the baby-toting warrior woman, and the punk woman in the bathroom.

2. John Picacio
I picked for a large part because of the Hyperion cover with the elaborate mechanical monstrosity holding a human infant. His other covers are really good too.

3. Julie Dillon
I LOVE the “Afternoon Walk” image, with all the monsters being walked like dogs in the park.

4. Chris McGrath
I like the gritty style of these, almost like found photos of fantastical places.

5. Vincent Chong

Reasoning: They always say not to judge a book by its cover, but in this case I had to judge the artist by his cover. The only one I’m very familiar with is Dos Santos, so I had to judge based only on the samples. This was a hard category to pick favorites. I would not be disappointed for any of these five who won the award. But, I’ve gotta pick someone.

 

 

Best Semiprozine

1. Beneath Ceaseless Skies
2. Clarkesworld
3. Lightspeed
4. Apex
5. Strange Horizons

Reasoning: See my Semiprozine Hugo 2013 Review for more detail.

 

Best Fanzine

1. SF Signal

Reasoning: I’ve enjoyed going to SF Signal for various content for years, so I’ll happily give them my vote. The other four I am aware of, but have never read. I’m not using the “No Award” vote, because I don’t have anything against the other four.

 

Best Fancast

1. No Award
2. SF Squeecast
3. SF Signal Podcast
4. Galactic Suburbia Podcast
5. The Coode Street Podcast

Reasoning: This is the second year that the Best Fancast category has been running, and all five of last years nominees are nominated again. This makes me think that no one is actually listening to them and is just nominating past nominees as a habit. I think this may also have to do with confusion over the classification of podcasts who pay their authors, like Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Escape Pod, Drabblecast, and so on. By the word of the rules, these would all be considered Fancasts but many people might guess that they would be classified as Semiprozines. I asked the question of the Hugo committee long before the nomination period ended to clarify publicly the classification of these, but they never responded to me. This is hurting my favorite magazine’s chances of getting award nominations because anyone who wants to nominate them may be splitting across categories. I was very disappointed that the Hugo Committee didn’t respond to my question.

In large part to raise my small voice of protest about the Hugo Committee’s lack of clarification, I am choosing No Award as my primary vote. I would love to see a quality fiction podcast get award nominations, and maybe even win. No offense to the nonfiction podcasters who do good work, but if I wanted to listen to a conversation about SF I would just talk to someone about SF. It’s the stories that I’m here for. And if my favorite fiction podcasts aren’t allowed into the category, then I’m not interested in the category.

It also bothers me that StarShipSofa is the lone fiction podcast representative, because their constant over-self-promotion, Hugo vote begging, unfiltered content , lack of payment is just too many factors that bother me about them. And that’s even not including the aborted nonfiction project they had planned some years ago to supporting a plagiaristic audio adaptation–it was aborted when the moral problems were pointed out to Tony, but I felt that an editor shouldn’t need to have this pointed out to him. It may seem wrong to criticize a “fancast” nominee for unprofessional policies, but venues like Escape Pod and Toasted Cake have shown me that just because a podcast is staffed by volunteers in their spare time doesn’t mean that there have to be no standards.

So I’ve ranked the four nonfiction podcasts about StarShipSofa so that even if “No Award” gets eliminated as a possibility, I’ll be encouraging one of the others to get the award rather than StarShipSofa.

 

Best Fan Artist

1. Spring Schoenhuth
I love the jewelry designs of Schoenhuth, particularly the Robot Transformation, and the Four Electron Atoms designs. I don’t generally wear jewelry other than my wedding ring but those make me want to start.

2. Galen Dara
a really neat dreamlike style. I particularly like the Ghost River Red image. It feels like a story, and the vivid reds of the hero and the shadowy adversary are very eye catching and intriguing.

3. Brad W. Foster

4. Maurine Starkey

5. Steve Stiles

Reasoning: As with the Professional Artist category, I had to judge these by their samples and would not be disappointed if any particular one of these won, but again i have to choose.

 

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (Not a Hugo)

1. Mur Lafferty

Reasoning: I confess that Mur is the only one whose stories I am familiar with, and I ran out of time to read the contributed works of the other authors. So, certainly no reason to use the No Award, but my lone vote is cast for Mur.

 

Conclusion

And that’s my take and my voting strategy on all of the categories where I picked up enough of the material to be able to cast votes. There are three categories that I didn’t touch at all: Best Fan Writer, Best Editor Long Form, and Best Related Work. In the In the Related Work category, I did not have time to read any of the nominees. In the Fan Writer and Editor Long Form, I am unfamiliar with these people’s work.

How did you vote? Care to share, drop a comment. I’ve enjoyed putting this together, and I think I’ll try to do the same series of articles again next year. Let me know if you enjoyed it, folks! Do you find it appealing to see how someone else spent his votes?

MiniCon Report (and my first editor pitch)

I’ve been meaning to make it to a science fiction convention for quite a while now. Even before I started writing they sounded like fun, lots of people with similar tastes all getting together and hanging out, swapping book recommendations, arguing about which authors write better books and why, and so on. But now that I’m writing, I figured I should check out the con scene from the fan side before people start knowing who I am.

For some reason all the cons in the Twin Cities seem to occur over holiday weekends, so for the last few years I’ve been out of town visiting family and unable to attend. But this year, I learned early that Brandon Sanderson was the writer guest of honor. So I registered early and decided that this time I would go.

I asked a few people if they’d want to go with me, but no one took me up on it, so I ended up going solo. Which was probably for the best, because if I’d been there with someone I probably would’ve just used them as an excuse to not meet anyone. So to avoid just sitting by myself the whole time I struck up conversations with a few strangers, met a few writers I’ll try swapping story critiques with, and just got a chance to talk to people about all kinds of things.

I missed the opening ceremonies, including the keynote speech by Brandon Sanderson because we’d bought hockey tickets for that night long before I registered for MiniCon. So I didn’t get to MiniCon until Saturday, with the meetup of the local speculative fiction writers group Minnspec. That was nice to meet a few of the members. I’ve been meaning to get involved with them for quite a while but I’ve just never gotten around to it. I mostly stuck to the panels during the day, not the bars after or the musical guests or anything like that. I’ve been so busy with schoolwork lately that I haven’t been able to spend as much time with Heather as I’d like, and since I was lucky enough to get a homework free weekend in the middle of the semester I wanted to make sure I didn’t neglect her the whole weekend.

For those of you who are used to the big mega-size cons, this is many orders of magnitude different, which is both good and bad. Bad because, of course, there are less guests, less people. But good because it’s so much more personal. At the big cons, if there’s a big guest, you could be one of thousands of people waiting around for a chance to get a glimpse, let alone any actual personal contact. But here, there just a few guests, and about four parallel programming tracks in four rooms. Even the guests of honor are extremely accessible. Most of the panels had a few dozen attendants, and a handful would hang around to talk to the folks presenting.

After the MinnSpec panel was an Editors’ panel with Moshe Feder (Brandon’s editor), Ben Bova (who should need no introduction), Eric Heidemen (editor of Tales of the Unanticipated), and Michael Merriam (slush reader for Fantasy Magazine). That was really cool, especially seeing Ben Bova was particularly cool. All four of them had a good sense of humor and had a lot of good interplay.

That afternoon I stopped at a Dan Dos Santos art exhibition. He showed a sped up video of him painting the cover art for Warbreaker, 70 hours compressed to 10 minutes or so. That was really cool to see it start at the vaguest shapes and down to finer and finer details, with layers of colors that look strange at first but blend into the vivid colors and textures of the final image. After that, he did a quick portrait of Brandon while everybody watched and while the fans could watch both of them. That took about a half hour and was really neat to watch.

Most of the rest of the programming I went to was Brandon Sanderson programming. He gave some interesting advice, told some funny stories, and was just generally good to listen to, including one panel dedicated just to telling the story of how he got the Wheel of Time gig.

But the highlight of the con, for me, was The Pitch. Anyone could volunteer to throw a three-minute novel pitch, for a novel that’s complete or incomplete, and give it front of Moshe Feder and Brandon Sanderson. I only heard about it a few hours ahead of time, but I decided that the opportunity was too good to pass out. So between the panels I wrote out a quick outline to help me when I was on the spot.

We volunteers raised our hands and Brandon picked one of us at random to go first. That random person happened to be me, so I got to go up and throw out my pitch before seeing what anyone else’s pitch sounded like or seeing how kind or cruel Moshe or Brandon were. So I gave my three minute pitch, terrifying, a bit awkward, but I made it through the whole thing with only a few ums and ahs. I didn’t have time to get out the whole plot, but I got about halfway through to a good stopping point. My characters, uh, need a little work, so I concentrated mostly on the plot.

Both Moshe and Brandon were simultaneously nice and honest. Both for my pitch and everyone else’s they gave constructive criticism and you got a pretty good idea of their level of interest in the story. Both of them had their points about my story, and they were mostly on target. I didn’t describe my characters much, which is an area that I’d had trouble with in the manuscript itself as well (it’s been quite a while since I worked on it, it could use some polish in that area). Brandon thought one part of the plot was too much of an idiot plot–that one I didn’t agree with, but I can see how he would’ve thought that from the short pitch. They also pointed something out which I hadn’t thought of at all–my beginning is very much a thriller beginning, an ordinary guy with his life thrown into sudden and immediate danger, and putting him on the run. But, despite the things they pointed out as needing improvement, Moshe said he’d be interested in seeing the manuscript. I’ve been concentrating on short stories for quite a while but it seems this would be a good time to reawaken the novel writer in me.

And after the feedback, Moshe gave me a Jelly Rat (like a Swedish Fish, but with a wormtail), which was a nice touch.

Some of the pitches were smoother than others, but Moshe and Brandon found something to compliment and something suggest an improvement for each one. I’ll list some of the more prevailing threads here, for anyone who might learn from it:

1. Don’t be too vague. Editors don’t care about spoilers when they’re hearing a pitch. One of the writers was afraid of giving away details that would be stolen, but it left the pitch so vague that it meant nothing. Sentences like “and they did something” means that you should probably either leave that out entirely or flesh it out to something more specific.

2. Tell something about the characters. Most everyone can come up with an SF idea, and there’s no doubt that SF ideas are important, but there need to be characters that have the problems, that drive the story, and it’s the interactions between the characters and the idea that make the story really unique.

3. Try to include as many of the relevant details as possible. Granted this is really difficult when you have such a limited time limit, especially when it was an impromptu pitch in the first place. For instance, if you explain the climax of the story, and it depends on some major plot point that happens earlier, you’ll want to make sure you mentioned that plot point.

So that was my first editor pitch. I thought it went well, and I’m looking forward to sending something to Moshe a manuscript as soon as I can.

Anyway, back to the con. Then, Sunday was mostly centered around doing the autograph fanboy thing. I bought a copy of Warbreaker, and got it autographed by Brandon(who wrote it), Dan (who did the fantastic cover art), and Moshe (who edited it). On top of that, I bought a print of a really great piece of art by Dan, a portrait of Moiraine Damodred (from the Wheel of Time series). I didn’t intend to buy any art, but it was just so beautiful I couldn’t possibly turn it down. I need to get a really nice frame for it and hang it in my office over my desk.

I’ll definitely be going again next year.