Gearing up, counting down, and supporting your local bookshop

There’s only a week to go before Binary is published, and the Gemsigns paperback edition comes out, and as threatened promised I am popping up all over the internet. In addition to the Civilian Reader and Jo Fletcher Books guest posts, and great reviews of both books from Lisa McCurrach and Sarah Chorn (all linked from here), there’s been an interview with Andrea Johnson and another guest post, about dystopia versus democracy, both on SF Signal. Plus I’ve had more superb reactions to Binary via Twitter from other respected reviewers, and there are more posts and interviews lined up.

If previous experience is anything to go by, the next stage will be people asking, Where can I buy your books? (In fact you needn’t wait; pre-orders are an author’s friend.)

So let me make it easy for you …

If you’re inclined to online purchasing, you’ve got a lot of options. The cover images to the right will take you directly to the Amazon UK pages for Gemsigns and Binary, and if you’re a Kindle user you’ll know they are the only source for your ereader as well as being a place to buy print. You can also purchase directly from the publisher, Jo Fletcher Books, who will have the epub as well as print copies available; and of course if you’re an Apple user you’ll know your way around iBooks. The Book Depository doesn’t do ebooks (as far as I can tell), but they offer good prices on print and – best of all – free worldwide delivery. And there are many other sites through which both print and ebooks can be ordered; if you’ve got a favourite that I haven’t mentioned, feel free to link it in the comments.

Unsurprisingly, there are fewer choices and less certainty when it comes to old-fashioned, pavement pounding, bricks & mortar book shopping. In the UK we’ve got a number of tiny-to-small independents; if you’re lucky enough to have one of them in your neighbourhood I urge you to support it (and again, give it a shout-out in the comments). At the medium-to-large end I can only think of Blackwell’s, Foyles, Forbidden Planet, Waterstones, and WH Smith* … and only two of those are in every town, on every high street … and most of them won’t get in more than a few copies, if any. (You can of course shop from them online as well, and many also carry ebook formats via their websites.)

But here’s the thing about bookshops large and small that I think customers often don’t realise: you can always order what you want from them right there at the till. The store will have it delivered, and you can collect it at your leisure. I’ve had too many people say to me, frustratingly, that they looked around their local bookshop, couldn’t find my book, and left without further inquiry. If you’ve been following the very fraught issue of the (under)representation of female science fiction and fantasy authors (as well as authors of colour, books in translation, non-heteronormative perspectives and anything else that’s not white, Anglo-American, male and straight), you’ll know we already have a mountain to climb when it comes to getting shelf space in bookshops; not to mention front-of-house table space.

Progress is being made on this last point, as reported by Emma Newman and indicated by Foyles’ assurances to Sophia McDougall, and I am delighted by that. But when a book isn’t in the store to begin with, interacting with the staff and placing an order through them is another small, simple, non-confrontational action that anyone can take and that quietly helps to redress the imbalance; purely as a side effect of getting you the book that you want while giving them the sales that they need. That’s because it does two things.

First, it makes the booksellers – the people who actually interact with and make recommendations to the public – aware of a book they might not otherwise have even known existed. Verbalising information makes it sticky; they’ll remember that they took a customer’s order for such-and-such a book. Second, it creates data that pings back to head office (assuming you’re dealing with a shop large enough to have one), and tells them what said public is walking into their stores and asking for. It creates a contradiction to the narrative that keeps the book from being on the shelf in the first place: the trope that it’s not worth carrying in-store because it won’t sell. This is usually difficult to refute in sales terms, because standard practice makes it circular and self-fulfilling; and bookshops are under such tremendous pressure in today’s market that simply haranguing them to take what they perceive as a commercial risk is likewise a difficult ask. It’ll only become less difficult as it’s perceived as less risky.

So if you’re inclined to shop in-store instead of (or in addition to) online, and you don’t see what you’re looking for, do me and your other missing author(s) a favour. Don’t assume that the shop has just sold out (that would be lovely), or that they’ll have more copies in next week (not likely). Make the inquiry. Order the book. That will let them know there is a demand, and nudge at that damaging narrative.

My book birthday is in a week. It’s the best present I could get.

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*Who I don’t think will have Binary in print for a while, as they only carry mass-market paperbacks and the Binary MMP won’t be out for a year.

 

What’s in a genre? Unpicking science fiction, fantasy and horror

My bookshelves are bastions of unreality. Narnia and Middle-Earth, Dune and the Culture. Morgan and Mieville. Gaiman and Pullman. Joe Hill and H.P. Lovecraft. The direction of my reading has been second to the right and straight on ’til morning since I was young enough to want to be Wendy.

Most bookshops stack the stuff I love in a corner labelled Fantasy/Sci Fi/Horror, and they do indeed sit very comfortably on a continuum of related reading experiences. As a reader, I never thought too much about the underlying structure of the fantastical. As a writer, I have to. And I’ve discovered that the distinctions which are often subtle for the reader can be quite profound for the writer.

All three genres posit a reality that is different than the humdrum, everyday “real world” that we all inhabit; the writer has to create that reality and draw the reader into it. This is worldbuilding, and while it’s a necessary element of almost every story, its demands on the imagination are arguably greater for horror, fantasy and science fiction than for other genres. But there are some key differences between these broad categories of the unreal. I find them in the measure of internal coherence required of the fictional world; the degree of continuity between it and the “real” world; and the amount of explanation that needs to be provided to the reader.

In horror, the reader is given little or no information about the hidden mechanics of the storyworld; it often appears to be the same as the “real” world (and therefore to require no explanation), until weird things start to happen. Then the inexplicability of events, and their disconnection from a rational, coherent framework wherein they make sense in relation to other events is what drives the sense of apprehension and terror. (A caveat: this applies more to modern horror writing. Classic novels such as Frankenstein and Dracula were written following what we would now think of as a science fiction or fantasy approach to worldbuilding.)

In fantasy, the reader is given a greater degree of explanation for how the world of the story works, which is necessary as it is usually immediately obvious that it is not the “real” world. These explanations are often elaborate and detailed, but they only need to be internally coherent – in other words they only need to make sense within the covers of the book, within the world of the story. The laws and logic of the fantasy world can be completely disconnected from the “real” world, as long as the story obeys the special rules of the fantasy world.

In science fiction lots of explanation is required, and it needs to be both internally coherent and to have some continuity with the “real” world. The physical reality of the science fiction story needs to follow the same basic rules as the “real” world, or at any rate to provide a rational explanation for any discrepancies. Science fiction need not always be set in the future; but wherever and whenever the story occurs, and however profoundly different the world it inhabits, the reader needs a plausible connection between the “here” of the real world and the “there” of the science fiction world. A fantasy world does not require the same degree of plausibility.

It seems to me that this sequence represents an ascending order of difficulty for the writer as worldbuilder. In horror the storyworld does not need to make rational sense; in fantasy it needs to make sense internally, but not externally; in science fiction it needs to be plausible both internally and externally. (I’m not, by the way, suggesting that it’s easier to write horror than science fiction – far from it. Creating the suspension of disbelief necessary to make you scared of an implausible monster is a tough trick.)

Having managed to unpick the nature of the writers’ challenges and readers’ complicity in constructing these imaginary settings, we inevitably run up against the stuff that just doesn’t seem to fit. Novels like The Time Traveller’s Wife or Never Let Me Go create a problem for genre cubbyholers. The scenarios they posit should be classic science fiction Big Ideas – but the authors make no real attempt to explain the how or why of the situations the characters find themselves in. Their worlds could be ours, but for the disconnects – an unrecognisable history that just is, seemingly impossible stuff that just happens. And excellent and acclaimed though these books are, there remains a sneaking sense of unease amongst both the SF geeks who want an explanation, dammit, and aren’t entirely inclined to trust an author who doesn’t give them one; and the snobbish literati who can’t quite put to bed the suspicion that they’ve been conned into reading something that smacks – gasp, shudder – of sci fi. Horrors.

Which, actually, is pretty close to the mark. I’m not a genre pedant; I’m happy to simply read a good book. But if I had to shelve these two in my fantasy bookshop of the fantastical, under Horror they would go.

  • I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it.

    In the meantime check out Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration, available wherever good books are sold.

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