Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Blog, page 9
October 3, 2016
Carol wants a nap. Carol needs a nap. And no one will let her have one because the grown-ups need her. But the grown-ups underestimate Carol. And they fail to realize that Carol will do anything to get her nap.
“Advisors at Naptime,” by New York Times bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook through various online retailers here.
Advisors at Naptime
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
It was time for Carol’s nap. They always forgot her nap. Mommy says every kid needs a nap. Carol used to hate naps, but now she’s tired. All she wanted was her blankie, her cuddly dog, and her squishy pillow.
And Mommy. They never let Mommy into the playroom with her.
They said Mommy sat outside, but once they left the door unlocked and Carol got out. She was in a cold hallway that looked like a giant tube or something. No chairs, icky white lights, and a hard gray floor.
No Mommy, no guards, no one to hear if she cried.
She stamped her foot and screamed. Everybody came running. Mommy said they were watching a TV screen with Carol on it in that room up there—and then she pointed at this tiny window, way up at the end of the hall—and Carol got mad.
“You lied,” she said, pointing her finger at Mommy in that way Mommy said was rude and mean. “You promised. You’d be right here. You said!”
Mommy got all flustered. Her cheeks got kinda pink when she was flustered and she messed with her hair, twirling it like she yelled at Carol for doing.
“I meant,” Mommy said in that voice she gets when she’s upset, “I’d be able to see you all the time.”
“I know what I said, honey.” Mommy looked at one of the guards—they’re these big guys with square faces and these weird helmets you could see through. They also had big guns on their sides, latched down so nobody can grab them away—and then she looked back at Carol. “I meant I’d be able to see you. I’m sorry I said it wrong.”
Carol wiped at her face. It was wet. She was crying and she didn’t know it. She hated that. She hated this place. It wasn’t fun like Mommy said it would be. It was a stinky place filled with grown-ups who didn’t get it.
Mommy said she’d be playing games all day, and she did, kinda, but by herself. She sat in front of this computer and punched numbers.
Once this scary guy came in. He wore bright reds, and he kinda looked like a clown. He bent down like grown-ups do, and talked to her like she was really stupid.
He said, “Carol, my dear, I’m so glad you’re going to help me with my little project. We’ll have fun.”
Only she never saw him again.
Which was good, because she didn’t like him. He was fake cheery. She hated fake cheery. If he was gonna be icky, he should just be icky instead of pretending to be all happy and stuff. But she didn’t tell him that. She didn’t tell him a lot of stuff because she didn’t like him. And she never saw him again. Just his mittens.
Mommy said every important person had mittens. Everybody who worked for him could be called a mitten, which meant Carol was one, even though she didn’t look like a mitten. She finally figured it was some kinda code word—everybody here liked code words—for workers.
She thought it was a stupid one—Mommy would say, be careful of Lord Kafir and his mittens—and Carol would have to try not to laugh. How can people be afraid of big fake-cheery guys with mittens? ’Specially when they had big red shoes and shiny red pants like those clowns at that circus Uncle Reeve took her to.
Carol had a lot of uncles. Mommy used to bring them over a lot. Then she met Lord Kafir, and the uncles didn’t come to the house no more. Lord Kafir promised Mommy a lot of money if Carol would play games at the Castle with him.
Mommy asked if this was a Neverland Ranch kinda thing and Lord Kafir’s mittens—the ones who’d come to the house—looked surprised. Those mittens didn’t wear helmets. They wore suits like real grown-ups and they had sunglasses and guns that Carol had seen on TV.
They wouldn’t let her touch the guns (she hated it when grown-ups wouldn’t let her touch stuff) but they promised she’d be playing with “weapons” all the time.
Mommy had to explain that weapons were like guns and stuff, only cooler.
So here’s what Carol thought then: she thought she’d be going to a real castle, like that one they show on the Disney Channel—maybe a blue one, maybe a pink one, with Tinkerbell flying around it, and lots of sparkly lights. She thought she’d get to wear a pretty dress like Cinderella, and dance with giant mice who were really nice, or meet a handsome beast like Belle did.
All the girls who go to castles get to wear pretty dresses with sparkly shoes, and they got to grow their hair really long (Mommy keeps Carol’s hair short because “it’s easier”) and got to dance what Mommy called a walls, and they lived happily ever after.
But that’s not what happened. The Castle wasn’t a castle. It’s this big building all gray and dark that’s built into a mountain. The door let you in and said stuff like checking, checking, all clear before you got to go through another door.
Then there was the mittens. The ones outside the mountain door wore suits and sunglasses. The ones inside actually had the helmets and weird-looking guns and big boots. They scared Mommy—the mittens did, not the boots—and she almost left there. But the assistant, Miss Hanaday, joined them and talked to Mommy and reminded her about all the money she’d get for just three months of Carol’s time (Carol didn’t like that), and Mommy grabbed Carol’s hand really tight and led her right into the castle/hall/mountain like it was okay.
Carol dug her feet in. She was wearing her prettiest shoes—all black and shiny (but no heels. Mommy says little girls can’t wear heels)—and they scraped on that gray floor, leaving black marks. Mommy yelled at her, and Carol hunched even harder, because the place smelled bad, like doctors or that school she went to for three days, and Mommy said the smell was just air-conditioning, but they had air-conditioning at home and it didn’t smell like this. At home, it smelled like the Jones’s dog when he got wet. Here it smelled cold and metal and—wrong.
Carol hated it, but Mommy didn’t care. She said, “Just three months,” then took Carol to this room with all the stuff where she was supposed to play with Lord Kafir, and that’s when Mommy said she’d be right outside.
So Mommy lied—and Carol hated liars.
And now all she wanted was a nap, and nobody was listening because Mommy was a liar and nobody was in that room. Carol was gonna scream and pound things if they didn’t let her nap really soon. She wanted her blankie. She wanted her bed.
She wanted to be let out of this room.
She didn’t care how many cookies they gave her for getting stuff right. She hated it here.
“Hate it,” she said, pounding on the keyboard of the computer they had in here. “Hate it, hate it, hate it.”
Each time she said “hate,” her fist hit the keyboard. It jumped and made a squoogy sound. She kinda liked that sound. It was better than the stupid baby music they played in here or the dumb TV shows that she’d never seen before.
She wanted her movies. She wanted her big screen. She wanted her blankie and her bed.
She wanted a nap.
She pounded again, and Mommy opened the door.
“Honey, you’re supposed to be looking at the pretty pictures.”
She was leaning in and her cheeks was pink. If her hands wasn’t grabbing the door, they’d be twirling her hair, and she might even be chewing on it.
“I don’t like the pictures,” Carol said.
“I wanna go home.”
“Now,” Carol said.
“Honey, we’re here to work for Lord Kafir.”
“Don’t like him.” Carol crossed her arms.
“You’re not supposed to like him.”
“He’s s’posed to play with me.”
“No, honey, you’re supposed to play with his toys.”
“A computer’s not a toy.” Carol was just repeating what Mommy had told her over and over.
“No, dear, but the programs are. You’re supposed to look at them and—”
“The bad guy always wins,” Carol said. She hated it here. She wanted to see Simba or Belle or her friends on the TV. Or maybe go back to that kindergarten that Mommy hated because they said Carol was average. She didn’t know what average was ’cept Mommy didn’t like it. Mommy made it sound bad.
Until that day when she was looking at the want ads like she did (Honey, don’t mess with the paper. Mommy needs to read the want ads) and then she looked up at Carol with that goofy frowny look and whispered, “Average five-year-old…”
“What?” Mommy asked.
“In the games,” Carol said. “The bad guy always wins.”
Mommy slid into the room and closed the door. “The bad guy’s supposed to win, honey.”
“No, he’s not!” Carol shouted. “He gets blowed up or his parrot leaves him or the other lions eat him or he gets runned over by a big truck or his spaceship crashes. The good guys win.”
Mommy shushed her and made up-and-down quiet motions with her hands. “Lord Kafir’s a good guy.”
“I’m not talkin ’bout him!” Carol was still shouting. Shouting felt good when you couldn’t have a nap. “On the computer. The bad guys always win. It’s a stupid game. I hate that game.”
“Maybe you could do the numbers for a while, then, honey.’
“The numbers, you hit the right button and they make stupid words. Nobody thinks I know letters but I do.” Carol learned her ABCs a long time ago. “What’s D-E-A-T-H-R-A-Y?”
“Candy,” Mommy said. Her voice sounded funny.
Carol frowned. That didn’t sound right.
Mommy grabbed her hair and twirled it. “Chocolate.”
“What’s W-H-I-T-E-H-O-U-S-E?” Carol asked.
“That’s in there?” Mommy’s face got all red.
“What’s W-O-R-L-D-D-O-M-I-N-A-T-I-O-N?” Carol asked.
“D…D…O…” Mommy was frowning now too. “Oh. Oh!”
“See?” Carol said. “Stupid words. I hate stupid words and dumb numbers. And games where the bad guy wins. I want to go home, Mommy.”
“Um, sure,” Mommy said. She looked at the door, then at Carol. “Later. We’ll go later.”
“Now,” Carol said.
Mommy shook her head. “Carol, honey, you know we can’t leave until five.”
“I wanna nap!” Carol shouted, then felt her own cheeks get hot. She never asked for a nap before. “And a cookie. And my cuddly dog and my pillow. I wanna go away. I hate it here, Mommy. I hate it.”
“We have to keep coming, honey. We promised.”
“No.” Carol said and swung her chair around so she was looking at the computer.
It was blinking bright red. It never did that before.
“Mommy, look.” Carol pointed at the big red word.
Mommy looked behind her like she thought somebody might come in the room. “Honey, I’m not supposed to see this—”
“What’s that say?”
Mommy looked. Then Mommy grabbed Carol real tight, and ran for the door. She got it open, but all those mittens with guns and helmets was outside, with guns pointed.
Mommy stopped. “Please let us go. Please.”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” the man with the biggest gun said. “You have to wait for Ms. Hanaday.”
“We can’t wait for Ms. Hanaday,” Mommy said. “My daughter punched the computer. Now it’s counting down to a self-destruct.”
Carol squirmed. She watched Star Trek. She knew what a self-destruct was. “We gots to go,” she whispered.
Mommy just squeezed her tighter.
“We gots to go!” Carol shouted.
The guards kept their guns on them.
“A self-destruct?” one of them whispered.
Another guard elbowed him. “She’s the average five-year-old. She finds the holes before we implement the program.”
“Huh?” the first guard asked.
“Y’know, how they always say that the plan’s so bad an average five-year-old could figure out how to get around it? She’s the average—”
“Enough!” Mommy said. “I don’t care if it is fake. I’m not going to take that risk.”
Carol squirmed. She wanted to kick, but Mommy hated it when she kicked. Sometimes Carol got in trouble for kicking Mommy. Not always. Sometimes Mommy forgot to yell at her. But right now, Mommy was stressed. She’d yell.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the first guard said. “We can’t let you go until Ms. Hanaday gets here.”
“And she is!” a lady’s voice said from far away. Carol peered around Mommy, and sure enough, there was that Ms. Hanaday, in her high heels and her black suit and wearing her glasses halfway down her nose even though she wasn’t as old as Mommy was.
“I wanna go,” Carol whispered.
“I know, honey,” Mommy said, but she wasn’t listening. She was just talking like she did when Carol was bugging her. But she did set Carol down, only she kept a hold of Carol’s hand so Carol couldn’t run away.
Ms. Hanaday was holding a bag. Her heels made clicky noises on the hard gray floor. It was colder out here than it was in that room. Carol shivered. She wanted a jacket. She wanted her blankie. She wanted a nap.
“I wanna go home,” she said again.
One of the guards looked at her real nice-like. He was somebody’s daddy, she just knew it. Maybe if she acted just a little cuter…
“What have we got here?” Ms. Hanaday said as she got close. She reached into the bag, and crouched at the same time. She whipped out a giant chocolate chip cookie, the kind Mommy said had to last at least three meals.
Carol reached for it, but Mommy grabbed her hand.
“We would like to leave now,” Mommy said.
“May I remind you, Ms. Rogers, that you signed a three-month contract? It’s only been three weeks.”
“Still. My daughter isn’t happy, and I’m not real comfortable here. No child should have to work all day.”
“It’s not designed as work, ma’am. It’s play.”
“Is not,” Carol muttered, wanting that cookie. She stared at it. Maybe if she stared hard enough, it would float over to her. She seen that in movies too.
“Did you hear her?” Mommy asked. “She doesn’t think it’s play.”
“Wanna nap,” Carol told Ms. Hanaday.
Really want that cookie, but Mommy still had a hold of her hand. Too tight. Mommy’s hand was cold and kinda sweaty.
Ms. Hanaday was frowning at her.
“I don’t like it here,” Carol said louder this time, in case Ms. Hanady didn’t hear so good. “Wanna go.”
“The day’s not over yet,” Ms. Hanaday said.
“Delores!” Lord Kafir shouted from down the hall. Carol knew it was him because he had the funny accent Mommy called Brid Ish. Some people from England had it. Most of them got to be bad guys in movies.
Carol shivered again.
Ms. Hanaday stood up. Lord Kafir was hurrying down the hall. His shoes didn’t make that clicky sound. They were kinda quiet, maybe because they weren’t official grown-up shoes.
“Is it true?” he asked Ms. Hanaday like there wasn’t Mommy and Carol and all those guys with the big guns. “Did she break the code?”
“I’m afraid so,” Ms. Hanaday said. She was holding the cookie so hard part of it broke. She had to move really fast to catch it before it fell to the ground.
Now the cookie was Carol-size. Carol looked at Mommy, but Mommy wasn’t looking at her.
“This is the five-year-old, right?” Lord Kafir pushed past Ms. Hanaday, knocking the cookie again. She had to grab real fast and still parts of it fell on the floor. Wasted. Carol wanted to get them, but Mommy wouldn’t let her go.
“Yes, sir. This is Carol. You’ve met her.”
“That’s right.” He crouched.
Carol made a face at him. She hated people who forgot her.
“You look pretty smart,” he said.
“I’m tired,” she said.
“Are you smart?” he asked.
“Of course I am, dummy,” Carol said.
“Carol!” Mommy breathed. “We don’t talk to grown-ups like that.”
He wasn’t a grown-up. He was a mean man in bright red clothes. He was glaring at her like she’d done something wrong.
“I think you’re pretty smart,” he said like that was bad.
“Her teachers said she was average,” Mommy said.
“We tested her IQ three times. She always came out in the normal range.” Ms. Hanaday sounded kinda scared.
“You know that children often give unreliable IQ tests.” Lord Kafir pushed up and looked at the other grown-ups. “I don’t think she’s average.”
“Mr.—Lord—Sir,” Mommy said. “She’s—”
“The other five-year-olds couldn’t beat that self-destruct,” he said.
“They barely got a chance, sir.” Ms. Hanaday was dripping cookie crumbs. “She got it earlier than the others—”
“Because she solved the earlier puzzles sooner. She’s good at code words and passwords and secret plans. She shouldn’t be this good if she’s average.”
“She watches a lot of television,” Mommy said.
“Can I have that cookie?” Carol asked.
Everybody looked at her.
“Please?” she asked in her best company voice.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Mommy said, but Ms. Hanaday handed her all the parts of the cookie.
Carol chomped. The cookie wasn’t as good as it looked. Maybe because it got all sweaty and gooey in Ms. Hanaday’s hand.
“I swear, sir,” Ms. Hanaday said. “She’s average.”
“I’m tired of five-year-olds,” he said. “It’s time to implement the plan.”
“Sir! We can’t do that! It’s not ready!” Ms. Hanaday said.
“Get it ready,” he said.
“But the five-year-old—”
“Isn’t average,” he said.
Ms. Hanaday looked at Mommy like Mommy had gone into the living room without permission. It was like that code grown-ups had. Lord Kafir understood, even if Carol didn’t.
“Have you seen anything?” Lord Kafir asked Mommy.
“No,” Mommy said. She was lying. Carol looked at her in shock. Mommy was a horrible liar. She lied all the time. Carol just didn’t know it before.
“She saw the red lights,” Carol said. She didn’t want Mommy to get in trouble with Lord Kafir. “It scared her.”
“Red scares a lot of people,” he said, smoothing his ugly clothes. Was that why he wore them? To scare people?
The guards looked at each other, like they didn’t like any of this.
Ms. Hanaday shook her head.
“Pay the lady her three weeks and get them out of here,” Lord Kafir said to her. “And wash your hands. You’re a mess.”
“Yes, sir,” Ms. Hanaday said, but Lord Kafir was already hurrying down the hall.
The guards had lowered their weapons.
Ms. Hanaday ran a hand through her hair, making a streak of chocolate on the side of her face. It looked a little like poo.
Carol tried not to giggle.
“You know that this is all just war games,” Ms. Hanaday said.
“Sure,” Mommy said.
“Pretend stuff,” Ms. Hanaday said.
“Yeah,” Mommy said.
“None of it means anything,” Ms. Hanaday said.
“I know,” Mommy said.
“I’ll get your check,” Ms. Hanaday said, “and meet you at the door.”
“Okay,” Mommy said.
Ms. Hanaday hurried off after Lord Kafir. The guards just stared after her.
“I don’t like this,” one said to the other.
Mommy picked Carol up like she was a baby. “We’re going, honey.”
Carol swallowed the last of the cookie. Cookies were yucky without milk. “Okay,” she said.
Mommy hurried down the hall, a different way than everybody else went. It only took a few minutes to get to the door.
Ms. Hanaday was already there, holding a long piece of paper. It had to be a check. Mommy snatched it, then said thanks in a kinda rude voice, and then hurried out the door.
Nobody stopped them. In the movies, somebody would’ve stopped them. ’Specially the way Mommy was breathing, like she was all scared and stuff.
Carol wasn’t scared. Carol was glad to be outside where the sun was bright and the air smelled really good. She stretched. She wanted down. She wanted to run, but Mommy held tight all the way to the car.
They backed up and headed out of the parking lot, driving really, really fast.
“If you want a nap,” Mommy said, “close your eyes.”
“Where’re we going?” Carol asked.
“Far away,” Mommy said.
“Can we get my blankie?”
“Maybe,” Mommy said. That meant no. Carol sighed. She hated no. But not as much as she hated that place.
“What’s far away?” Carol asked.
“Good guys,” Mommy said.
Carol smiled. This was how it was supposed to go. She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. But she couldn’t sleep. Mommy was driving really bad. Fast like in the movies. Tires squealing. Going around corners on two wheels, stuff like that.
Mommy’d been watching Carol play too many games.
Carol opened her eyes. They were on a road outta town. Carol’d never been outta town before. This was kinda cool.
“Hmm?” Mommy said in that don’t-bother-me voice.
“Am I average?”
“I hope so, honey,” Mommy said. “In fact, I’m praying that you are.”
“Because average kids beat the game?” Carol asked.
“And that means it’s easy,” Mommy said.
It didn’t seem easy. It was just dumb. But Carol didn’t say that. She closed her eyes again. She didn’t care about numbers and weird letters and computers. Or bad guys like Lord Kafir. They could be scary, but they always lost in the end.
At least she got part of what she wanted. She got a cookie. She got outta there.
And now—finally—she was gonna take a nap.
Copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in If I Were An Evil Overlord, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Russell Davis, Daw Books, March 2007
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2016 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Lane Erickson/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
September 28, 2016
Late Saturday night, I finished teaching a writing workshop about history, alternate history, and time travel for professional writers. We read a bunch of books, worked on technique, and talked about turning points in history.
Turning points are important for time travel and alternate history. Identifying turning points and then postulating what would happen if something went differently is an essential skill for the time travel or alternate history writer.
I ended up exhausted after the workshop—which really isn’t fair, because I was exhausted going into the workshop because…September, as I said in a blog of that name. I’m clawing my way out of the fatigue, but my brain is still making random connections—the thing it does when it’s really tired. I don’t go from Point A to Point B in this state. I go from Point A to Point 243 to something way off the grid.
So, last week, as we discussed Vienna of the 1920s and Baghdad in what we Westerners call “The Middle Ages,” I found myself thinking about lost cultures and lost worlds. Sometimes those worlds disappear in an instant—Hiroshima in 1945—and sometimes they disappear over decades (the world before the Enlightenment) and sometimes they disappear in a few years, as many places in Europe saw in the 1910s, 20s, and early 30s.
Those thoughts, still swirling in my head, came to fruition the other day, as I realized we’re losing a world in publishing. The traditional rules that governed our industry since the late 19th century are going away. Some people still play by those rules, but for the most part, we’re in such a new environment that it’s as if the Industrial Revolution happened and a handful of us haven’t yet discovered coal.
There’s a weird sadness with losing a world, even if that world isn’t particularly beneficial. I’m not sure I understood nostalgia until I hit my 40s, but when I did, I realized I wasn’t longing for the world that was. I was longing for the understandable nature of the world—the idea that the rules I learned were fixed, and that I could make my way through and around them because I had mastered them.
In this new world of publishing, the new rules aren’t always evident. The industry hasn’t settled down, and we don’t know what will be familiar to people three generations from now.
We’re groping our way in the semi-darkness, trying to figure things out. And it’s deeply unsettling.
Or it was, for me, up until some point this year. Now I feel a lot more grounded. I hadn’t figured out why I’m feeling that way either—at least I hadn’t figured it out intellectually. Usually, when I feel calmer, it means I’ve accepted the change or I believe that the new place I’m in is somewhere better than I was before.
In the case of this new world of publishing, my brain understood that I was in a better place long before my emotions did. But my emotions are starting to catch up.
This morning, I was doing some noodling around, preparing for another project when an idle thought crossed my brain. Did you know, my idle thought said, that you’ve already earned more money on a novel you’re releasing next year than you would have earned as an advance?
Why that idle thought decided to present itself at that moment, I’ll never know, but it certainly stopped me from the prep on the task I was completing. I decided that my idle thought couldn’t be right, so I had to do some math.
I finished the book in July. Tentatively, the book was scheduled for the late spring because another book in the series had to come first. I sold subsidiary rights to the July book almost immediately, and the money added up fast. It beat the last traditional advance I had gotten for any book in that series, and it also beat any traditional advance I had gotten on books in that genre in the 21st century.
And I haven’t even published the book yet. In fact, the book’s publication date had to be moved to the fall because of one of those subsidiary rights.
What caused this? Granted, some of it is the reputation I have built over the decades as a writer. I contacted the subsidiary rights editors and asked if they wanted the book. They asked to read it, they read it, and then they contracted for it. (They clearly would not have bought the book on my name only—that’s rarely done any more, because of tightening budgets.)
So, my name got the contact and the quick response.
The book itself got the deal.
The fact that I did not have an agent facilitated those deals. There was no back-and-forth in a game of telephone, me telling the agent to tell the editor, etc. I sent the book, I negotiated the contracts, and I finalized the deals.
In fact, I can imagine one of my former agents actually arguing me out of one of those deals, probably saying it would “hurt” the book. Yeah, right. No. These deals have benefited me—
And I out-earned an old-fashioned traditional publishing advance. I’m still releasing the book around the world in paper and in ebook next fall, so at that point, the book will begin earning in those formats.
Quick, fast gravy. What a surprise to me.
This comes on the heels of an astoundingly successful Kickstarter subscription drive for Fiction River. I know a lot of you participated, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
One of the reasons the Kickstarter succeeded was something else that’s relatively new in this brand new world: Fiction River’s volumes remain in print. So, as we were designing the Kickstarter, we could offer all kinds of deals on past issues of Fiction River, as well as future issues. (If you still want to subscribe, you can go to the website.)
While the Kickstarter was going on, a couple of volumes of Fiction River were in two other promotions through Storybundle. Readers could get ten books, including a Fiction River, for a low price, read the Fiction River volume, and then decide whether or not to promote the Kickstarter. A number of people did that—piggybacking promotions, which worked really well.
I’d love to say we planned it that way, but as I wrote in a previous blog, the timing was mere happenstance. (One of those promotions has ended, but the other continues, if you would like a deal on some ebooks and to sample Fiction River.)
I’ve curated some bundles through Storybundle and I’ve learned a few things. For example, if your agent published your ebook, then I’m not going to work with you, even though most writers consider that “self-publishing.” (I have no idea how that is “self”-publishing, but to each their own, I guess.) Agents don’t understand the concept of bundling books with other authors and actively get in the way of getting the book into the bundle, let alone contacting the author. It’s a true nightmare.
The other side to bundling with other authors? There are writers who write great books and expect everything to come to them because of it—everyone else should work hard, because they wrote something. Then there are writers who write great books and work hard to get the word out. Finally, there are the writers who haven’t learned their craft yet, but sure as hell can promote anything.
In a bundle with other writers, the writers who write well and work hard are the ones you want. Because readers aren’t dumb. If you sell them a bundle filled with bad books, then the readers aren’t going to buy another bundle. But if you sell them a bundle filled with writers whose works they enjoy, then the readers will return, both to a bundle and to other works.
Bundling works like an anthology: readers might not like everything they bought, but the price is low enough that the reader is happy to give the new-to-them writers a try. Including an anthology series like Fiction River in the bundle adds even more writers that readers will learn about. And that’s a win-win.
These opportunities wouldn’t exist without the new world.
I’ve been crossing back and forth into the old world a little with some of the promotions for Women of Futures Past. I’ve been doing some radio promotions—many of which are just great. The DJs are knowledgeable and easy to talk with. They know what they’re about, and they made it easy on me. They want the broadcast to be good, and modern, and helpful to their listeners.
And then there are the old-school guys, who haven’t looked at the product, get your name wrong (repeatedly, in my case), and want you to explain something complicated in five seconds. It’s particularly hard when the old-school DJ misunderstands your project and gets the information backwards. These guys don’t ask how readers can find the material; these folks are just filling up air time. I get it. I used to work in radio. And when you’re faced with 8-minute content blocks throughout your 4-hour shift, you see everything as a ticking second on a clock, rather than thinking of your listeners and their needs.
I’ve done a lot of podcasts over the past several years—more podcasts than radio interviews, to be honest—and I’ve found that podcasts, while time consuming, are a lot more fun. The podcaster asks you to talk with them at length about a subject, and it feels like a discussion among friends.
I have no idea if either method moves books, and honestly, I don’t care. Because, as I’ve written before, discoverability isn’t about moving books from a single interview. It’s about making sure that readers hear about you from a variety of ways and sources.
Most of those ways and sources exist online these days. I’ve done podcasts based in Australia, England, Denmark, and Canada as well as the U.S. I try to keep the podcasts to a minimum, partly because if I’m on an hour-long podcast, I lose an hour of writing time. But I do prefer a podcast to an 8-minute radio interview, strictly because I can explain things to someone who is actually interested, rather than someone who sees you as a bridge between commercial breaks.
The other nice thing about podcasts is that they fill a niche for me that sf conventions used to fill: the podcast enables me to interact with like-minded people while other like-minded people listen in. Rather like a panel. Since my health is preventing me from traveling as much as I would like, I still get to have interesting conversations with people I’ve just “met,” conversations we all can enjoy.
Plus, podcasts remain. For example, let me share three podcasts with you. There’s the podcast I did most recently, with Castle of Horror on Women of Futures Past and a few other projects.
Then there’s the podcast I did with Jonathan Strahan a year ago now, on the same book, with everything fresh in my brain because I had literally turned the book in a few days before.
And finally, here’s my favorite podcast from the past year, done with Mark Lefebvre and the women of the Uncollected Anthology. We were all punchy, and that makes for good ear candy.
These would all be ephemera back in the day, talking about projects you couldn’t get any more except through a used bookstore. All of that has changed, at least for me.
Even with Women of Futures Past. I brought that project to a traditional publisher, Baen Books, because—let’s be honest here—they’re not a traditional publisher. They’re a major publisher, yes, but not a conglomerate. They’re an independent publisher, with an easily identifiable owner and a clear vision. They’ve been innovative in new technologies for thirty-plus years, and they’re still nimble.
In fact, many years ago, they moved out of the New York area to get away from the massive overhead, and have taken other risks as well.
They have an existing infrastructure for print books that gets those books into the stores I wanted Women of Futures Past in, as well as an infrastructure that allows libraries to see the book easily and enables some schools to get the book too.
I could do that with the businesses I own, but that would have been reinventing the wheel. And the Women of Futures Past was timely. So, oddly enough, I went into the old system to get a timely project into the right places—something I could do, because my writing business is now nimble too.
(And for those of you who’ve been following the contract series, Baen, with its small structure, has a lot more room to negotiate on the points that interest me.)
Baen’s been fun to work with. They’re amazingly responsive and I’m learning a lot about the new world of publishing from them, which surprised me.
They have a podcast as well, which I’ve been on once, and will be on again in a few weeks. They’re doing a lot of innovative things, which I admire.
Does that mean I’ll do all my books with a traditional publisher? Nope. It means I’m taking my work one project at a time. I have a few more Kickstarters planned for upcoming projects. I’m working on something only a few people know about, as a complete experiment, because I can. I have a list of projects I need to finish, and some editing projects that are quickly moving off the back-burner.
Plus, I need to revise the contract series I worked on all summer for an upcoming Storybundle, so I have a hard deadline on that as well. That project, funded through the blog, is yet another way this new world works for me. I couldn’t have written contracts and dealbreakers without all of you. Instead, I would have just bitched about the way that the Big Publishers (5? 4? 2.5? Who knows) work these days, as well as the way agents work. Dean and I would have taught classes to a dozen people at a time, hoping to get the word out, rather than blogging to thousands like we do now.
Sure, people ignore what we say at times, and I don’t mind that. So many of you have written to let me know what you have learned or how you used it, and believe me, I find that both touching and valuable. Thank you.
Here’s what I realized, maybe even during this insanely busy month. I realized that deep down—on that emotional level—I don’t want to return to the world that was. Yeah, sometimes I’m nostalgic for the rules—not because I want to follow them, but because I knew how to creatively break them, and I missed knowing where the fissures and cracks that I can manipulate are.
But I so strongly do not want to return to that world that I now have trouble advising writers who do want to enter that world. I find it annoying that they even ask me how to get there and how to succeed.
There are so many more opportunities in the indie-publishing world, so many more ways of doing things, so many ways to control and guide your own career, that when I hear a young writer want to give all of that up for an advance that won’t even pay their house payment for a month or for “validation” (whatever that means) or for someone to “take care of all that business stuff,” I just want to walk away. Or say something totally inappropriate.
I don’t do either — yet— although I do recommend they go elsewhere for advice. I’m no longer a one-stop-fits-all blogger. I’m where I’ve always been: pro-writer.
But the pro-writer position these days is in the indie world, not the traditional one. Hybrid is great for some of us, so long as we choose it because we’ve looked at the options and decided that straddling both worlds is good for us or a particular project. But 100% traditional? It’ll only come around and bite you in the ass.
And I no longer want to be a part of that. I don’t want to help writers get harmed, even if that harm is five years after the initial decision gets made.
The old world of publishing is fading away, like the pre-industrialized world did in the 19th century. The world that is taking the place of the old world of publishing is one I greatly prefer.
I’m lucky to have made it here, with all of these amazing opportunities. It’s such a rich new world that I’m overwhelmed at times.
And honestly, I can’t imagine coming of age in this world, with a wholly different perspective. That’s something for younger bloggers, who never aspired to an agent or a publishing contract, to blog about at some point.
Although I realize it’s hard to blog about something as familiar as air.
I’m still exhausted. I need to put together some projects that I promised for this week, and I also need some sleep. So I’m wrapping up this blog now, and I’ll write something with more depth next week when, in theory, my brain will return in some kind of coherent manner instead of serving up random idle thoughts.
Until then, enjoy whatever you’re doing. Because this world is so much more fun than the one we’re leaving behind.
And that’s something I know for a fact.
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: Following The Crowd,” copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2016 by Canstock Photo/rfcansole.
September 26, 2016
For his entire life, Willard Harrison envied Mrs. Rose Grenlauer, but never more than now. Willard lost his arm, his wife, and everything he owned to the Yankees.
Now the Yankees hold Memphis, and he can’t do anything. Except think of Mrs. Rose Grenlauer, who escaped with her valuables into the wilds of Tennessee.
Willard wants her valuables. Willard wants her life. And he means to get both.
Shortlisted for The Best American Mysteries in 2001.
“Valuables,” by New York Times bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook through various online retailers here.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
On June 8, 1861, Mrs. Rose Grenlauer, with the help of her slaves, packed all of her plantation’s valuables into two railroad cars and disappeared. Willard knew the exact date because that was the day Tennessee seceded from the Union. It was also the day he got conscripted into the Confederate Army.
Ten months later, he was back in Memphis, such as it was, missing one arm, one wife, and half of his house. The Union army had burned it just after the Battle of Shiloh, when they occupied the city. General Ulysses S. Grant now used Mrs. Rose Grenlauer’s plantation as headquarters for one of his divisions and, it was said, he sat in her husband’s library, drinking port and smoking his awful cigars as he made his plans to destroy the South. Colonel Rufus Grenlauer knew nothing of that, of course. He hadn’t been home since he joined up right after Jefferson Davis, a friend of the Grenlauers’, became President of the Confederacy.
Willard knew all that because he now begged for coins not a block from the Grenlauer estate. The damn Yankee soldiers would give him nothing for his trouble and for all his losses, but the widows and wives, most of whom were still struggling to keep their fancy homes together, usually gave him a scrap or two. Then they’d plead with him to get off the street, worried that the Yankees would somehow hurt him if they found out he was a patriot, as if they could do worse than they’d already done.
Besides, the Yankees already knew he was a patriot. A strapping local man, left sleeve pinned to his shoulder, obviously thinner than a man should be, could be nothing else. That they didn’t bother him, that they didn’t arrest him, showed that they no longer thought him a threat.
They were wrong.
Someday, he would prove it to them.
And Mrs. Rose Grenlauer would help.
He didn’t know when he starting thinking about Mrs. Rose Grenlauer. Sometimes, he believed it began after he got home and saw her plantation still standing, the bricks, made by hand by the hundreds of slaves her parents had on the estate, untouched by fire or explosions or even gunshots.
His house, the bricks bought at great cost in 1855 when he was gainfully employed as a tugboat captain and which he laid by hand one hot, long summer, had been knocked askew in a firefight he hadn’t been there to see. The wooden porch his wife Selma Leigh had asked him to build just for her and for the children they would now never have had burned, the fire licking across the plankings and eventually eating the wooden floors she had polished so lovingly after their marriage in December of 1856.
The neighbors said she’d tried to defend the place all by herself, using his granddaddy’s Revolutionary War musket and a hunting knife Willard had left behind. But in the end, it’d done no good.
The Yanks had captured her, done what they wanted with her, then left her for dead in the middle of the roses she’d planted that very first spring. She’d died three days later, out of her head—“a mercy,” said Mrs. Cannon, who’d tended her—apparently injured too bad inside to live. The sheets she’d laid on had to be thrown out, they was covered with so much blood.
Willard found this out when he came home, too thin himself, the only thing carrying him was the memory of his pretty wife’s face and the cool soothing way her hands would feel on his ruined body. He’d been afraid she wouldn’t accept him, not without his arm—not even the Army wanted him now, although they was hurting for men—but he knew he’d have to give it one more try.
And he’d been too late. Too late by a month, maybe more. Too late to stop any of it.
Old Mrs. Cannon, she’d said it was a blessing he hadn’t been there. He’d have died too, maybe in the gardenias or at the front of the lawn, trying to protect his wife and his home. His wife would have screamed and he would have been distracted, and the Yanks would have taken advantage, all of them—five, ten, Mrs. Cannon couldn’t remember—and then his wife’d had to go through one more horrible thing, watching him die before her very eyes.
Only Mrs. Cannon couldn’t have known how it would’ve worked, not with him home. He’d have had his rifle and he knew how to use his granddaddy’s muzzleloader. He’d have held off five men or ten. He’d have gotten his wife away.
But he hadn’t been there. On the day she died, he’d been in a doctor’s tent that smelled of old blood and piss, a pile of limbs outside it, and he’d been begging the man in the bloodstained uniform to let him keep his arm, let him keep it despite the bullet that had ripped through it, tearing the flesh and leaving it hanging useless at his side.
They’d gotten him drunk—the last of the Army’s whiskey, someone had told him later—then made him bite on a stick of wood already chewed raw by other men’s teeth. That’d stopped him from biting through his own tongue, but it hadn’t stopped him from screaming like he was going to die, probably as his wife’d been screaming, probably while those Yanks were enjoying her and laughing at the victory that they’d so easily won.
Then he’d asked Mrs. Cannon why his house was ruined when none of his neighbors was, and he’d asked why his wife was dead when almost no women or children died when the Yanks took over the city, and what he’d learned upset him most of all.
His wife, Selma Leigh, had caught the eye of a Yank captain who’d decided that he wanted her and her pretty home all to himself.
I’m a married woman, sir, she’d said to him, and the Yankee bastard had just laughed.
Chances are you’re a widowed woman, he’d said back, and even if you ain’t, how’s your husband to know what we done if you don’t tell him?
Still, she stuck to her refusal and he’d come with his men one spring afternoon, and taken what he’d wanted. Taken it, and destroyed it, so that when Willard came home, he’d have nothing. No wife, no home, and no memories worth savoring.
Because all he kept thinking was that if he hadn’t brought her here, if he’d left Selma Leigh in Atlanta where he’d found her, she’d still be alive now. Alive, and using her dainty hands to grow roses and keep a home, smiling that pretty smile for someone else.
But at least that smile would still be alive. At least someone would see it.
He didn’t care if he didn’t get to see it, so long as someone did.
Instead, as the perennials bloomed—flowers she’d planted—he laid them on the grave his neighbors had made for her in the back yard, and he promised her, soon as he got rid of them Yankee bastards, he’d find her a proper resting place, just like he once promised her a proper home.
He didn’t know what all that had to do with Mrs. Rose Grenlauer or why he started to think of her and her two railroad cars. Sometimes he wondered if he’d been thinking about Rose Grenlauer his entire life. He’d seen her when he was a boy, and she was a young woman, living in the guest cottage while her family’s slaves built the most spectacular plantation in Memphis.
Back before the war, the plantation even had artificial lights, powered by oil squeezed from linseeds, an hour’s worth of light taking two days worth of work to create. The plantation had been filled with marvels and anyone who was anyone in the city’d come to see it. Rose Grenlauer’s parents, the Allens, had opened the doors to show off their new home.
He’d sat outside, of course, on the other side of the street. All he’d been able to see was the lovely landscaping, the marvelous lamps placed at the end of the long meandering sidewalk, the brick stairs and the wide white door, opened to admit people who wouldn’t even meet Willard’s gaze. He’d stood there most of the day, along with other folks who weren’t anybody, and finally he’d gotten a chance to see Rose Grenlauer, who’d been Rose Allen then, standing by the door.
She’d worn a white dress trimmed with red to match the bows hanging all over the trees, and her lovely hair had been curled into ringlets. She’d been laughing at something a young man said to her and then she had looked across the street.
Willard always thought she’d looked at him, but if she had, it would have been the first and only time. He’d seen her after that, had stood outside the house on one other occasion, that of her summer wedding to Rufus Grenlauer. That had been a spectacular event too, the tents on the lawn, the musicians filling the entire outdoors with sounds Willard had never heard before, the food stacked on tables and the servants who kept all the bugs away.
The guests had arrived looking more refined than Willard had thought possible—the women in their taffetas, the men in their best suits. Even from across the street he could smell the pomade the men used in their hair, the French perfume the women had sprayed all over themselves, and the flowers—oh, all the flowers—that the Allens had somehow convinced to bloom all over the yard.
He’d vowed then—it was June of 1850—that when he married he would provide the same things for his bride: a beautiful home, more flowers than a body could behold, and wealth beyond all her imagining. That was when he’d gotten his job, and in every spare hour worked on the home, first paying for the land, then designing the house itself, and then building it, sometimes with his own hands. When he’d finally found Selma Leigh, he’d had everything he’d dreamed of, except great wealth. But he’d been better off than his parents, better off than his friends, and when the war came, he was able to give more than his service to the cause—he was able to send thousands of dollars—greenbacks—to support Jefferson Davis’s new administration.
Like so many others, he’d converted the rest of his wealth into two forms: Confederate bonds and gold, kept in a safe in the house. The safe was gone, of course, gone in the fire that had destroyed half his home. He’d found some bonds, but Memphis was run by the Yankees now, and they didn’t recognized what they called Jeff Davis’s phony money. So Willard had nothing. No wife, no arm, no pension, and no cash with which to live. He was dependent on the charity of his friends and on the begging he did, as no one would hire him—not looking the way he did, not with his missing arm.
It was a wonder that he survived from day to day.
But Willard wasn’t a man used to being useless, and for each penny he scrounged, each jibe from a Yankee soldier, each pitiful look from one of the Southern women who used to envy his pretty wife, he grew even more despairing.
He tried finding honest work, but those who didn’t stare at him with pity politely refused, saying that he had done enough in service of his country. Others asked him to take a loyalty oath to the United States, something he couldn’t bear and something, he knew, that would come back to haunt him when the South won the war.
Poverty, infirmity, loss, none of those were enough to abandon your country, your state, and your dream. He knew that. Others in Memphis knew that as well. He heard them, feeling comfortable around him, talking about ways of fighting back, ways of forcing the Yankees out of Tennessee.
He even went to some meetings, when he could find them, and listened to men too old to serve or women who had no idea what the fighting was like talk about taking on the Yankees who owned his city. But he knew that the Yankees were too powerful. The help couldn’t come from the inside. It had to come from outside, and right now, there was too much happening in the South for the armies to concentrate on one city, even if it was on the Mississippi River and other transportation routes.
It was up to the citizens of Memphis to remind the Confederacy of their importance. And, Willard believed, every citizen had a duty to help.
Sometimes, he thought, that was what had focused him on Rose Grenlauer and her two railroad cars full of valuables. He had learned of it from one of the widows who attended the meeting, a bitter woman whose family had sold some of the land to the Allens before they built the plantation.
Never paid us what it was worth, she would say. Even then they were tighter with money than most. That Rose, she’s just the worst of them. People dying for a cause, and she runs away with the family silver.
From that moment, he dreamed of Mrs. Rose Grenlauer, thought of her, wondered if she was still as pretty as the bride he’d seen so briefly on her wedding day, walking underneath a bower of white roses, her veil trailing more than a yard behind her. Was she still a delicate creature of privilege? Or had that year of riding in railroad cars taken some of the blush from her skin?
He wanted to find out. He needed to find out, not just for himself, but for the sake of the Confederacy. Those two railroad cars of hers could be used in the war effort to transport troops and supplies and weapons. And those valuables could buy food and clothing for soldiers or help support the widows and orphans left behind.
Yes, Mrs. Rose Grenlauer had lost her home, but only because she had abandoned it, left it as an obvious place for the enemy to make his headquarters.
Sometimes Willard thought she had been a collaborator with the Union. It seemed so curious to him. She’d left the day that Tennessee seceded. She left her home undefended so that anyone, even that slob of a general Grant, could move inside. She’d taken valuables in railroad cars.
Maybe, he’d found himself thinking, maybe she’d even taken them up North.
He’d hated that thought the moment he had it: pretty Rose Grenlauer using Southern heritage to fund the Union cause. But he hadn’t been able to get it out of his mind. He would stand in his old spot across from the Grenlauer mansion and he’d stare at it, wondering if Grant was there with Mrs. Rose Grenlauer’s permission.
The very idea stuck in Willard’s craw.
And he knew it was that idea, that one idea, which forced him to take action.
It’d been hard. First he’d talked to the servants, the ones who were still in Memphis, the ones who had helped her pack the cars. They spoke of riches beyond his comprehension, silver services that had been in the family for generations, paintings by some of the old masters, jewelry that had more diamonds and emeralds than he’d ever imagined possible.
There was no way to trace the railroad cars, or so he was told, but he knew there had to be. Those cars had to be moved from place to place, whether they were pushed or pulled. It had only been a year. Someone had to remember them. Someone had to know where they were.
He’d stopped begging outside the Grenlauer plantation. Instead, he spent most of his time at the train yards. He did what work he could, voluntarily shoveling coal with his one good arm, dragging parcels from place to place, posting the weekly casualty lists.
Finally they started paying him, without the Yankees’ permission of course. When the Yankees came the train yard workers claimed he was just a bum whom they fed sometimes, and he was happy to keep up the lie. He didn’t want his money, what little of it he got, coming out of the Yankees’ pockets.
In return for all the work, he got to listen to the gossip. Sometimes he brought up his few stories of train travel during his brief service. Sometimes he brought up legends that he’d heard over the years—ghost trains during the night, things like that—and finally someone told him the story of Rose Grenlauer.
She’d bought the railroad cars with cash, used her own servants to load them, then hired an engineer to take her to an unfinished line where she could live and hide until the war was over.
He’d heard part of that, of course, but not all of it. He figured he could wait until he actually found the engineer, a man who might not come through Memphis again, or he could visit the unfinished lines of track himself.
A year before Jefferson Davis pledged himself to finishing the rail lines, but that hadn’t been possible, not with the way the war was going and the South’s great need for men. Hiding at the end of one of those unfinished lines—provided, of course, that no battles were being fought around it.
He’d used a map inside the stationhouse, one of the maps that showed every bit of rail ever built, and studied it for days. Some of the unfinished lines were near Shiloh, where he’d lost his arm. Only a few were in areas untouched by the war, and only one was near a small community, where a woman alone, who happened to have gold or other things to trade, could buy something to eat.
It had taken him nearly a month, but he felt he had found her. And now that he had her, it was time to make her do her duty to country.
Everyone else was paying. It was time for Mrs. Rose Grenlauer to pay too.
Of course, he had no horse and no money to buy one. Stealing one was a capital crime but, he believed, one he could justify if he had to. Why he’d simply say that the horse was one he’d found wandering free, probably lost after one of the battles. There were so many lost horses, after all. And if he didn’t get caught, he would leave the horse outside the city when he was done.
In the month he’d been searching for Mrs. Rose Grenlauer, he’d managed to buy food. The work had made his remaining arm stronger, and he actually felt like a man for the first time since he’d come home.
It was, he thought, the perfect time.
The horse theft was easy. He took one of the mares from the Grenlauer estate. He recognized the horse. It had been one of Rufus Grenlauer’s, left behind by his wife when she took her railroad cars and fled. The Grenlauer horses weren’t assigned to any officers, not so as he knew, and he doubted that anyone would know she was missing for at least a day or so.
That got him outside the city into the thin woods and bluffs that lined the Mississippi. He had packed his old saddlebags with food he’d saved and meal for the horse, which he’d also stolen from the Yanks. He was carrying his rifle and several hunting knives, figuring that would be enough.
When he got a few miles outside of Memphis, he doubled back through the woods to the unfinished rail line. He followed it north and cattycorner. Riding jostled him, made his stump ache, but he did it, and was proud of it. Three days over track that was weed-infested and lines that were broken, not by destructive armies, but by time and lack of use.
At times he nearly lost the track for the weeds, his horse reluctant to go through such tangles. Sometimes he doubted the wisdom of his mission—not the idea of making Mrs. Rose Grenlauer do her duty, but the idea of following this line when he had no actual evidence she was along it.
Supposition hadn’t served him that well since the war started. As he rode, he was beginning to think it would fail him again.
On the fourth day, he saw rusted shovels and pickaxes abandoned on the side of the track. The wooden rails were gone—probably used as kindling—, but some lengths of iron remained. His heart was in his throat as he emerged through a copse of trees and saw the line was blocked.
It looked like it was blocked by more trees. Branches covered the track in front of him, and vines tangled up it. But the branches were haphazard, the vines weaving in and out in a way they’d never do with a living tree.
He needed to know if this was Mrs. Rose Grenlauer’s railroad cars and he wasn’t sure how to do it, not at first. He hadn’t been thinking of a plan on the ride—imagining various scenarios, yes, but not actually planning. Deep down, he never thought he would find her.
He sat on his horse for a long time, staring at the tangle ahead. Nothing moved. He heard no one, saw nothing. Maybe he was mistaken. Maybe he was just seeing an abandoned shed or an old unused car. He would have to find out.
His plan, as it evolved, was simple enough. He was a Confederate soldier, going home, his injury apparent enough. He’d stay with her until he convinced her to accompany him, taking the valuables to Richmond maybe, or Atlanta, somewhere that they could be sold for funds.
He’d always known when he met Mrs. Rose Grenlauer she’d be sweet on him. He’d use that to convince her to give her belongings to the cause.
He rode up, and as he approached the tangle he realized he was seeing box cars. Two of them attached in the middle. Someone had carefully hidden them, but had gotten careless. A lot of the branches had dried and fallen off. Others were so choked by vines that the entire works looked like a jungle from some storybook instead of a forest in Tennessee.
One of the railroad car’s doors was open, revealing a small room inside, filled with furniture laid out in a comfortable pattern. He was so intrigued he pulled up right in front, and stared in. Upholstered chairs with mahogany legs sat side by side, with a matching table between them, a lamp on it and a book with them. On one side were boxes. On the other, a small bed with a canopy and mosquito netting.
He was just about to dismount when a voice stopped him.
He frowned, saw a small woman in a floppy hat and a faded dress holding a rifle on him.
“Willard,” he said. “Willard Harrison.”
“You put up them arms, Mr. Harrison,” she said. He couldn’t see her face. It was shaded by the hat.
He put up his arm, keeping the reins draped over his thumb.
“Both of them, Mr. Harrison.”
“Beg pardon, ma’am,” he said. “I got but one.”
She took a step closer. He hadn’t remembered her being so small, but then he’d never seen her up close.
“I guess you do.” She pushed her hat back and he saw her face. Mrs. Rose Grenlauer all right, thinner than he’d remembered, her hair tumbled around her face like a schoolgirl’s. Not the beautiful belle he’d been admiring for years, but a woman who was beginning to look her age. “What’re you doing here?”
“Heading home,” he said. “To Memphis.”
“Then you’re headed the wrong way.” She didn’t sound too friendly.
“Don’t lie to me, Mr. Harrison. You came searching for me, just like them others, hearing snifflings of gold.”
“No, ma’am,” he lied. “I’m just a soldier on his way home.”
“On my husband’s mare?” She made a clicking sound with her tongue, and the mare reared. Willard slid off, unable to grab on with his remaining arm.
He landed on his back, and the wind rushed out of him. He couldn’t catch his breath, and the sky revolved for a moment. Mrs. Rose Grenlauer came over to him and put a foot on his chest. A foot wearing a man’s boot. She levered her rifle at him.
“I remember you,” she said. “My father had the servants drive you off more than once.”
Willard couldn’t defend himself. He didn’t have the breath.
“I’m gonna ask again. What’d you come here for?”
He finally got a gulp of air. He managed to squeeze out, “We need your railroad cars, ma’am, and your valuables. Memphis is Yankee-owned now, and the devil Lincoln made Andrew Jackson military governor of Tennessee. We’re losing. We need all the help—”
She jammed him in the chest with her rifle. “You don’t need what I got,” she said. “I’d tell you to take your horse and git, but it’s my horse you got. Guess I’m just gonna have to shoot you.”
He scrambled backwards and upright faster than he’d known he could move. He grabbed the rifle and twisted it, pulling it away from her. He turned it and leveled it on her, bracing it under his arm, and holding it with his forefinger on the trigger, thumb on the hammer.
“I ain’t lying to you, Mrs. Grenlauer,” he said. “We need you to do what you can for the cause. The rest of us, we lost everything, but you, you’re sitting here till the war’s out, sitting on your hoard like what we do don’t matter.”
She didn’t look scared of him. “I’m a woman, Mr. Harrison,” she said. “I’m not expected to serve.”
“There’re others at home, helping with the effort. You could to.”
“I understand there’s a Union general sleeping in my house and Yankee soldiers tearing up my yard. There’s nothing for me to return to, Mr. Harrison.”
“Nothing?” The word screeched out of him. He shoved her with the rifle, pushing her backwards with the muzzle. “Nothing? You don’t know what nothing is. You and your railroad cars and your fancy husband and your big house that ain’t even got a boot mark on the wooden floors. You’re here alive and untouched with all your treasures while my wife—”
He stopped, not liking the hysteria in his own voice. What’d his commander said? A man out of control was a man who was going to lose something. A limb, maybe a life.
How well he knew that.
He focused on Mrs. Rose Grenlauer. She no longer looked calm. Her eyes were round and her lower lip trembled. “Yes,” she said in a voice that was so soothing and placating it sounded like she was talking to a child. “Yes, you’re right, of course, Mr. Harrison. You’re absolutely right. I should be helping with the war effort. I should donate all my goods to the cause. I was such a fool not to see it.”
Her gaze darted past him, and he whirled. A black man was there, a big dark man in tattered clothes, clothes that Willard recognized as the uniform of the Grenlauer house. The man holding a stick.
“Put it down,” Willard said. “Put it down.”
The black man looked at Mrs. Rose Grenlauer for confirmation. Willard did too, and the black man rushed him. Willard fired before he could even think. The man flew backward and Mrs. Rose Grenlauer screamed. The man landed on his side, blood gushing from a wound in his stomach.
“You idiot!” she said. “You fool!”
And she jumped on him, digging her feet into his side, kicking him, pulling at the gun. He swung his torso, trying to throw her off, trying to knock her away. She was taking his breath away, hurting him, piling into the old wounds, her hands hitting his stump, sending pain where the arm had once been. Reminding him of all the nothing he had, all he’d lost, for a cause she didn’t feel she had to fight for.
With a roar, he flung her back. She slid off him and he kicked her away.
“You ignorant piece of trash,” she said. “You don’t understand what you’re asking me to give up. You don’t know—”
He shot her. Mostly to shut her up. And it did. She stared at him for a long moment, then fell forward on her face, her eyes open and fixing on the sky.
He was shaking just like he had in his first battle. He glanced over his shoulder, but there was no one to see what he done. No one except the horse who was watching him from the side of the railroad car.
“Didn’t go like we planned, huh, girl?” he said.
The horse watched him warily.
“She didn’t know. She was a traitor to the cause, sitting here on her wealth, hiding out as if what she had was the most important thing in the world.”
The horse shifted skittishly from one side to the other.
He sat down, so exhausted he didn’t know what to do. He glanced at her, unmoving, and the black man who was just as dead. Of course she would’ve brought a slave with her. Of course. To protect her and the valuables. Not that it did much good.
A shaky laugh escaped him and it sounded just a little crazy. Of course it sounded crazy. She was dead and it was because she had pushed him to it, not understanding how things really were, how badly her railroad cars and valuables was needed. She pushed him by mentioning his wife and how he didn’t understand sacrifice and—
He shook his head trying to make the thoughts stop. He had to do something. That she was dead didn’t really matter, after all. He had the cars and the valuables, and he wasn’t going to sit on them, not like she did. He wasn’t no traitor. He’d given an arm and a wife to the cause. He wasn’t going to stop now.
It would take some planning. But he had time. He could take it nice and slow.
Took him a day to bury them, using one of the rusty old shovels he’d found. He dragged them to the woods and buried them there, away from the railroad cars. That first night, he slept in her bed and knew that wasn’t how he’d imagined it. From the first he’d known he’d be in Rose Grenlauer’s bed, but he hadn’t realized he’d be there alone.
The next day he’d closed the railroad car’s doors and covered it again with brambles, hoping it’d stay hidden just long enough for him to do his duty.
That took longer than he thought too. He couldn’t go back to Memphis. That was a Union town now, and the trains, even though they had Southern boys steering, was Union owned. He had to go farther south till he found his own men, and then he’d have to bring them back.
It took him and the mare three more days to find help, and another day after that to convince the corporal in charge to let three of his men accompany Willard back to the railroad cars. If they liked what they saw, they’d risk sending an engine in to pull everything out.
Four days back to the hiding place—counting the one day he got lost—and he was afraid someone else would have found his treasure, someone else would have stolen it, made all this work for nothing.
This was what was going to redeem him. Wouldn’t make the loss of the arm or Selma Leigh worthwhile, but at least he’d help with the cause in a way that Mrs. Rose Grenlauer never did. He would have given everything—the woman he loved, a part of himself, his home, and now bounty that a lesser man would have kept as payment for all that loss. He was giving it back, giving it up, and maybe someday people would remember. They’d say, that Willard Harrison, he wasn’t so crazy after all. He was the one that got the money that turned the tide in the war.
The railroad cars were as he left them. The men who’d ridden with him seemed relieved. He knew they didn’t really believe him, that they thought they were getting a leave for humoring a former soldier. But when they got there, they got off their horses, tied them to some brambles, and set about opening the railroad cars’ doors.
The first car was like he left it, the furniture set up, boxes on the side. The second car he’d never even looked into. It was filled with boxes and crates. One of the men whistled through his teeth as he looked in.
He pulled down the first box, opened it, and swore. Then he pulled down another. The men grabbed boxes in the first car and pulled them down. Willard saw what they did when it was opened. Letters, linens, toys, and books.
“There’s supposed to be silver,” he said, “and more jewels than anyone else ever had in Memphis.”
And there was silver. One serving set and one set of silverware. A pearl necklace and diamond earrings. Gold leaf plates and some baby spoons, also made of gold.
But that was all. Rattles and clothing and portraits of the family, most of them recent and done with that photographic process that was so expensive, but not worth nothing for resale.
The men threw things out of the boxcars and kicked the boxes and ruined the little furniture grouping and cursed Willard who watched in shocked dismay.
“They’d said,” he said. “They’d said there was valuables here.”
“There are valuables, you dumb ass,” one of the men said to him, face up close, breath smelling of rot. “Some family’s mementos. Ain’t got no meaning to no one else.”
Willard flushed. How to save this? He thought it would be enough to finance food and clothes for an army. He’d thought it might be enough to save the South.
“The railroad cars, at least,” he said. “We could use them. Troop transport or—“
“The wheels’re gone,” the soldier said. We’d have to repair them first.”
Willard looked. Sure enough. She’d disabled the cars so someone who came looking would think they were abandoned a long time. Only she’d never expected someone like Willard. Someone craftier than she was. Smarter. Better.
Someone who’d had a hoard of valuables and lost it to the Yankees.
Something of it must have shown on his face for the soldier who’d been yelling at him stopped, put a hand on his shoulder. “It was a good try. Next time, you make sure you know what the valuables are before you offer them to the Army.”
Then he whistled to the men, and they rode off, leaving Willard standing alone in a pile of boxes. A pile of memories that didn’t matter to no one except Rose and Rufus Grenlauer.
The horse was watching him again, judging him, it seemed. Maybe he was no better than them Yankee bastards, killing and taking what he wanted, then realizing it wasn’t worth his effort. Maybe he was no better at all.
He bent down, picked up a packet of letters wrapped in faded ribbon, and placed them back inside the box. He was better. Of course he was. He’d done this for the cause. The soldiers had had no patience, that was all. He’d find what they needed. Then he’d turn it in somewhere else.
Until then, he and the horse, they’d stay here. Where it was safe. He couldn’t go back to Memphis. He didn’t have a home there or a wife. Or even a dream any more.
Just a packet of memories of a world gone by. A world he’d known mostly from the outside. Like the visions of a boy who’d stood across the street and tried to stare into a house where he’d never be invited.
A house owned by a pretty woman, with memories of her own.
Copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published under the byline Kristine Scheid in Murder Most Confederate, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers, Cumberland House, September, 2000
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2016 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Cassie08/Dreamstime, Pixeldreams/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
September 21, 2016
While I was digging deep into the ugliness that traditional publishing contracts have devolved into, the indie publishing world has grown and changed and become even more positive. More than a light at the end of the tunnel, the indie world has become a haven to those of us willing to work hard and to understand that real achievement takes time.
It amazes me how far we have come in the publishing industry since the Kindle revolutionized the ebook in 2009. While indie publishing hasn’t exactly stabilized yet, it has become both easier and harder in the past few years.
Easier, because there are a lot more tools, and there’s more data that shows what works and what doesn’t. Harder, because so many fad-chasers who got rich quick off their fad have left in discouragement as their fad-based income decreased.
Here’s the truth of indie publishing, folks: It’s a business. It takes five to ten years for a business to become solid. So if you started your indie publishing business in 2010, you might (if you managed it well) be seeing some predictable patterns and very real growth. If you started last year, you’re still in the early years yet, and you have some tough times ahead.
Those of you new to this blog will note that I say “indie publishing” when so many others say “self-publishing.” The reason is simple: it now takes several people to produce a book. Yes, you can do most of it yourself (self-publishing) but to do it well, you need copy editors and maybe a cover designer, beta readers and some classes in marketing (or someone to teach you how to write ad copy). There are a lot of things worth hiring out, and some things you should keep close at hand, and those things all vary according to the author.
But very few authors go it 100% alone. Those authors are self-publishing. The rest of us, those who hire out a few (or all) of the jobs? We’re indie publishers.
So what has changed while I climbed into the muck and stared horrid contracts in the face?
A lot, much of which I did not make note of. I had to ask Allyson Longueira, publisher of WMG Publishing, for her list because I know she has one. Mostly, it’s a “we’ll get to that when we get to it” list, but it’s more organized than my “oh, cool!” list.
Thank you, Allyson! I couldn’t have written this blog post without you.
Top on her list of changes this year are innovations by Draft 2 Digital. A few years ago, D2D was the upstart rival of Smashwords, a way to publish ebooks DRM-free and to get them to hard-to-reach platforms overseas (or in some cases, in the U.S.—places like iBooks).
Nowadays, Smashwords looks like a twenty-year-old website, and creaks like one too. D2D is constantly improving, constantly innovating, and constantly adding new things. And, a plus for those who use D2D to disseminate their ebooks worldwide, D2D pays monthly. Smashwords pays quarterly. I hate that Smashwords sits on the money that long, and have slowly migrated a lot of product out of Smashwords because of the money and the creaky website and a whole bunch of other reasons.
Also, D2D gives writers a lot of incentive to go there. One incentive that you might have noticed on my blog in the last few weeks?
D2D has started something on its Books 2 Read site that D2D calls “universal links.” D2D calls it “one link for every reader everywhere.” And while it doesn’t quite cover everywhere, it does take the time out of list linking.
Frankly, I gave up listing all of the places my ebooks were available two years ago. It took me 20 minutes on every post to list all the links. I finally decided the readers could figure out where the book was on their own. I didn’t like that solution, but it was better than wasting countless hours over the year copying and pasting links.
D2D now lists all the ebook links it can find on one page for your book. An indie friend of mine refuses to use this service because it takes the reader off his website to another landing page, but I don’t mind that at all. (I also know how to click that little place on my WordPress site that says, “open link in new window.” )
As a reader, I love having all the choices in one spot. I’ve used that option on other websites for traditionally published books. As a writer, I love the time savings.
And did I mention this service is free? Plus, D2D links to your affiliate accounts if you input them into the D2D system.
They call this Books 2 Read, which I’m just fine with. Books 2 Read provides another service for readers. It notifies them when their favorite authors release new titles.
Amazon does that—which I love, because that way, my regular readers often find my books before I announce them. Now, D2D has made that easier as well.
So has BookBub, which we will get to in a moment.
But let me finish with D2D. D2D provides free ebook conversion from Word documents. I hear that the conversion is a very good one. So if converting from word to ebook has been one of the daunting steps in your process, here’s a solution for you.
Now, BookBub. Just like Amazon and D2D, BookBub will notify your followers on their site of any new releases you have—even if those new releases are not part of a BookBub ad.
For those of you who don’t know, BookBub is a highly successful newsletter advertising service that informs readers who sign up and personalize their account of discounted ebooks in their areas of interest. The slots in the newsletter are paid, but BookBub advertising is effective.
For example, the daily email newsletter that goes out to crime fiction readers has (at the time of this writing) 3.8 million subscribers. If you advertise a free crime novel through that newsletter, BookBub will charge you $500 and estimate that you’ll get about 60,000 downloads. I personally don’t believe in paying something to give something away, so when I do a BookBub ad, I sell the books at a discount.
It costs anywhere from $1000 to $2500 to place a BookBub crime fiction ad for a discounted book, depending on the discount (the lower the book’s price, the cheaper the ad price). In these cases, BookBub says that the average number of books sold in this category will be about 4,000.
I’ve found that BookBub’s sales averages are on the low side. And, let me point out that every BookBub ad I’ve placed has made me a profit—because I do not pay to advertise my book for free. So if I discounted my crime novel to $2.99, it would cost me $2500 to advertise that discounted book on BookBub. At that price, I would make roughly $2.25 per book sold. And if BookBub’s averages are correct (and they usually are), I would make a gross profit of $9000. Subtract the cost of the ad, and I would net $6500.
This is why every indie author competes for the limited BookBub advertising slots. And these indie authors are competing with some traditional publishing houses now, as well.
If you run an ad campaign on BookBub, then they will collect followers for you and your titles. And once BookBub does that, they will advertise, for free, your newly released works.
We’ve talked for years about discoverability here. I’ve just told you three ways that are pretty hands-off to get your books discovered: Amazon does it for you automatically (for free); Books 2 Read will do it for you for free if you but sign up; and BookBub will do it once you’ve advertised with them.
It’s all about informing readers, folks.
Other places do this as well in a variety of ways, most of which I’m unfamiliar with. Goodreads does, for example, but I’ve been too busy to investigate it closely.
As I mentioned last week, the most precious commodity an indie writer has is time. There just isn’t enough of it, and no real way to do everything well. I’m writing this through bleary eyes, as I also prep for a week-long writers workshop. (If I don’t respond quickly to emails or comments this week, the workshop is why.) I’ve actually doubled my workload this week to compensate for losing next week—and what’s suffering is my hours of sleep.
Indies know what I’m talking about. So when services like D2D’s ebook conversion service comes along or the Books 2 Read universal links develop, they manage to do the one thing indies need the most: they save time.
We’ve investigated a couple of other time-savers, but haven’t used them yet. For example, if you want to give away free copies of a short story to your newsletter, you can upload all the files on your favorite newsletter service or make a private page on your website. Some plug-ins, like Enhanced Media Library, will make uploading the files on WordPress sites easier.
Or you can use BookFunnel. BookFunnel charges for the service (again, paying for free), but the costs appear to be minimal, and sometimes paying $20 annually is well worth it for the time that you save by not doing the thing yourself. Again, I haven’t tried this one, but I plan to at some point Real Soon Now.
Another service that caught my eye during this contracts-writing period was an audio distribution company that promised to distribute audiobooks all over the world through a variety of services. I waited long enough on this one to decide not to recommend right now. Initially, I wanted to use it, but the distribution agreement is onerous. A friend is trying to negotiate it right now, and if he’s successful, you’ll see more here.
Normally, I wouldn’t bring it up because we’re not going to use it right now. But I am mentioning it, because these new businesses are cropping up all over the place. Some are wonderful and help with the time-sink aspect of indie publishing. Others sound wonderful until you dig into their Terms of Service and realize that, like traditional publishers, these new companies are trying to make a rights grab to make their service worthwhile.
My point is this: as indie publishing becomes big business, these sorts of new things will crop up over and over again. We indies will have more opportunities, not less.
I’ve blogged about that before—about the way that my indie books (in English) are most countries around the world now, and my traditionally published books are not. Opportunities expand for indies, which is one of the coolest part of this new world in which we find ourselves.
The old world is starting to pay attention. Two statistics caught my attention this past month.
The first comes from Quartz titled “Amazon has cornered the future of Book Publishing” (as if Amazon is the only ebook service in the world), has this little nugget right after the lede:
Between 2010 and 2015, the number of ISBNs from self-published books grew by 375%. From 2014 and 2015 alone, the number grew by 21%.
Quartz cites Bowker, the company that issues ISBNs as the source of those statistics, but Quartz misses half the story. Many ebooks on Amazon (and other services) don’t use traditional ISBNs at all. Amazon doesn’t require them for Amazon-only ebook publishing. So even though the growth in ISBNs has been astronomical, that growth doesn’t begin to measure the actual number of indie ebook titles published.
Traditional publishers—after all their mergers these last ten years—have drastically scaled back the number of titles they publish. The money isn’t in traditionally published titles any more. It’s in indie, and that money has dispersed through individual authors and small publishers, rather than gathering in a few large companies.
That’s what these services are going after—they’re following the money.
Don’t believe me?
Then look at the second statistic, this one from The Guardian about Kickstarter. Kickstarter has become one of the major players in getting books published. Here’s the quote:
Of course, Kickstarter doesn’t get involved in the messy business of producing books – it’s a platform that puts people who want to produce books in touch with others all over the world who want to support their projects. But if you put the 1,973 publishing pitches that were successfully funded in 2015 together with the 994 successful comic and graphic novel projects, then last year’s tally of 2,967 literary projects puts the crowdfunding site up among publishing’s “Big Four.”
The Guardian goes on to quote Publishers Weekly statistics on one of the Big Four, Simon & Schuster. Apparently, S&S only published 2,000 titles last year. Heh. More books, more readers.
Full disclosure here. We just finished our third Kickstarter, and it was by far our most successful. If you contributed, thank you! I greatly appreciate it.
I think one of the reasons for the success is the broadening use of Kickstarter among the general population. People love to fund publishing projects on the site, and there are more people funding those projects than ever before.
I also think we know how to run a Kickstarter now, and it shows. We’ll be doing a few more as time goes on.
Kickstarter and other crowd-funding websites make starting projects—and continuing projects easier. There are also more ways to sell books, as I mentioned last week, in discussing Storybundle (and all the other bundles). Really successful Storybundle sales numbers can rival those that put books on The New York Times bestseller list in a given week. I’ve had bundles that have outperformed the ebook bestsellers on the Times list. (Of course, I have been in bundles that haven’t done as well either.)
Opportunities abound now. And everything is changing so fast that taking time away to write a blog series, like I just did, puts me far behind the curve in what’s growing and changing in the new side of the industry.
Frankly, I love the changes, and I love the growing opportunities.
This new world of publishing has not only kept my career alive, it has revived me as well. I’m now doing things I could only dream of a few years ago.
And that’s completely cool.
I’m teaching a class this week so am pressed for time. When you comment, be aware that I might not be able to put the comment through in a timely fashion. But I will put it through.
Thanks to all of you for the support through the contract series and beyond. You folks are just great!
And, as always, if this post has been valuable to you, please leave a tip on the way out.
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: Good Things,” copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2016 by Canstock Photo/sjenner13.
September 19, 2016
Shanika never wanted to pursue a career in magic. Her mother dreamed that up for her. So, when she makes it to the finals of the American Magic reality show, she figures she’ll do it for her mother—and the money.
But her talent might just garner her unwanted attention, and a choice she never expected.
“Salem Week,” by New York Times bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook through various online retailers here. It is also available in ebook and paperback in Fiction River: Sparks, edited by Rebecca Moesta. Speaking of Fiction River, don’t forget there’s only one more day for the Fiction River Subscription Drive on Kickstarter! Great books, great deals!
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Shanika noticed him at the United Center auditions. Six thousand hopefuls, and somehow her eye caught the creepiest one. He had just a bit of a glow, and the glow was…off. A muddy gray-green-black color surrounding him, not in sparkles, but in sharp ragged lines, almost as if he had exploded and someone magical had frozen the moment of detonation before the energy could expand outward and kill anyone else.
Then he disappeared into one of the doors leading out of the stadium, and she didn’t see him anymore.
She didn’t give him anymore thought either—not during those long three days of callbacks, and especially not after that moment of triumph, where the celebrity judges called her “winning” and “original.” Her mother had cried and clung to her, and the TV cameras had leaned in a bit too close.
Shanika didn’t like the way her face reflected in the lenses and she willed herself not to cry. The American Magic producers had already teased a sob story out of her (not that she had cried while telling it but, she later found out, her mother had retold the same story, and had sobbed so hard that she had ruined her makeup—which meant the producers had crying and the story and Shanika).
Shanika also knew that the American Magic producers wouldn’t use the second part of her interview unless she made it to Salem Week and flamed out spectacularly. Then that interview would show (prove) what a jerk she really was—at least from an American Magic perspective.
Because, honestly (and they had asked her to be honest), she didn’t want to be here. Winning American Magic was her mother’s dream, not Shanika’s. Her mother had watched each of the fifteen seasons of the show and had always speculated loudly about whether or not she would have won if she had only been two years younger when the show started up.
The first auditions for the very first season had come to Chicago (just like they had for Season 15), and her mom had huddled outside, thinking about lying to get in, believing that the producers actually double-checked identification.
The American Magic producers didn’t hire a private investigative firm to vet identification until Season 2. And Shanika’s mom would tell anyone who listened that if she had had enough guts to lie about her age, she would have won, because the talent wasn’t quite as fierce in that first year as it would get later.
Finally, while they watched an episode of Season 12, Shanika’s grandmother told her mother to stop denigrating her own talent. Shanika’s grandmother had said to Shanika’s mom, Baby Girl, there’s only one mage I’ve ever seen with more sparkly inviting performance magic than you, and that’s our Shanika.
And from that moment on, Shanika’s mom turned all that ambition, all those failed dreams, on her third child. Shanika, who didn’t care about magic. Shanika, who never had attention before. Shanika, who (even at age twelve) had been on her way to a career as a concert pianist, not as a performer who prostituted her magic for the sake of the Almighty Dollar.
Shanika had hoped that her mother would forget the American Magic dream after Season 12. After all, Shanika wouldn’t qualify until Season 15. Unlike her mom, Shanika was too young to be part of a reality TV show even if she had wanted to be part of it.
Shanika figured the only way to shut her mother up was to audition. And because Shanika was Shanika, she couldn’t mess up the audition just because she was following her mother’s dream instead of her own. Shanika gave it her all during that final audition in front of the three celebrity judges, and they rewarded her with a golden ticket to every contestant’s dream—Salem Week.
Six thousand in Chicago, 10,000 in San Francisco, 12,000 in Dallas, 4,000 in Las Vegas, and 3,000 in Seattle—all boiled down to 250 scared, sweaty contestants who flew into Boston and boy were their brooms tired as more than one wag said, thinking he was being original.
Nothing about the 250 stood out from the 250 in each previous year. They were all young and green and insecure and full of themselves. There was the backbiting and the untamed egos, the “types” as her mother called them—the Entitled Teenage Girl, the Tortured Male Artist, the Misunderstood Depressive. They just wore different clothes from season to season.
Her mother gaped through the entire experience, from the plane ride to the thirty-minute bus ride to the cheering at the Gothic sign proclaiming You Are Now Entering Salem, Massachusetts. The contestants—at least the ones on Shanika’s bus—were both tired and excited, and they all talked about the fame and fortune ahead of them.
Shanika didn’t care about fame and fortune. If she did, she wouldn’t have aspired to become a concert pianist. A musician could be famous in the genre, but no one went into classical music to become a multimillionaire and have legions of fans. A musician went into classical music because she loved the music itself.
No one here seemed to love the magic. At least, no one she had talked to. And Shanika was just as bad as the other contestants on that point: She wasn’t here for love of the craft either.
She was looking at the promised $1,000 for every episode that used her face, $5,000 for every episode she spoke on, and $10,000 for every episode that gave her more than five minutes of airtime. If she made it to the Top 24, she would receive $20,000 per episode, plus 50% of her appearance fees, endorsements, and all the other things that went with being on American Magic.
If she won, she’d receive half a million dollars outright in addition to the earnings from a standard contract with ImpsWitch Productions. She’d done her research and learned that the contestants who made it to the top five made even more money than the winner, because they weren’t bound by ImpsWitch’s contract terms.
So yes, if anyone asked, she would say she was doing this for the money. Not because she was greedy, but because she was tired of living in her grandmother’s house, sleeping on the hide-a-bed with her sisters, and trying to remember (even when she was tired) to augment her mother’s protect spell so that no stray bullets would come through the wall.
Shanika tried not to think about any of that. She really didn’t like how it was all going to play on TV. She knew the producers would cut up her interview to make her sound all whiney, when, in fact, they had to drag information out of her.
Yes, she lived in gang territory. Yes, it was dangerous to get to school. Yes, she was uncomfortable at home, but she loved her family, and yes, things had been hard since her father had died, but they were all making do, and someday, things would be better, particularly if she made some really good money on American Magic.
But she’d seen those sob stories: it seemed every contestant from every year had one, and now she would too, and no matter when she went home, people would look at her with pity, and think, Poor thing. She lives such a horrid life—when her life wasn’t really horrid at all.
(It wasn’t all rose petals and kittens either, but she figured the hard stuff was her business and no one else’s.)
She was trying to disappear into the background as the bus pulled into the U-shaped parking area in front of the Hotel of the Seven Gables. Her mother was sucking all the air from the bus, telling everyone about the history of American Magic and how the statistics broke down, and how fortunate they all were to be in the top point-seven percent of everyone who had auditioned for Season 15.
Some people gravitated toward Shanika’s mom, wanting the optimism and the comfort. Others sighed heavily, crossed their arms, and glared out the windows. The camera operator at the front actually had to tell Mom to shut up twice so that he could focus on contestants’ worries and fears, not parental worries and fears.
Initially Shanika had been excited to have Mom along—it was Mom’s dream after all—but one full day into the experience, and Shanika wanted nothing more than to be here on her own, having an adventure, and seeing a corner of the world she’d never seen before.
After all, everyone had heard of Salem, Massachusetts, the place where witches stood up and stopped the witch hunts and made The World Safe For Magic. Salem was hallowed ground for the magical, and the producers used that to their advantage. They promoted the city and the city promoted American Magic in return.
Even Shanika, who really had tried to avoid all things American Magic, had fallen for the every-mage-needs-to-visit-Salem patter.
She wasn’t impressed so far. She wouldn’t have noticed the bus’s arrival into Salem if one of the producers hadn’t mentioned it, sparking everyone to applaud so that the camera operator could get images of their happy, expectant (terrified) faces. Salem looked just like Boston had to Shanika. The producers kept pointing out all the historical sites, but Shanika wanted to see the Thirteen Colonies Theater more. It had been built specially for American Magic after the series took off.
The theater was easy to spot once they passed it. Unlike most of the buildings in Salem, the theater was big and modern, with lots of steel and angles. Right on cue, Shanika’s mother had started into how the initial building permits were nearly denied and how the builders had to move to the outskirts of Salem, away from the historic downtown and…that was when Shanika tuned her out.
She kinda wished she had paid attention now that they were in front of the Hotel of the Seven Gables. She had expected it to look like that famous house everyone had read about in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book.
Instead, the hotel looked like the hotels near Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, big and rectangular with lots of windows, going up more stories than she could count. She sighed softly to herself: she had wanted a more magical experience (pun intended) because she figured she was leaving soon. Still, this was going to be the first time she ever stayed in a really nice hotel, and she was going to make the best of it.
She waited until half the contestants were off the bus before she even stood. Her mother had bounced off first, as if all of this were for her. Shanika saw her mother’s round shape supervising the movement of their meager bags.
Shanika grabbed her purse and the battered paperback she’d brought (mostly for comfort) and walked to the front.
As she descended the steps, she saw that kid again—the one from the United Center auditions. He was standing by a podium labeled Valet, but she knew he wasn’t one of the parking attendants.
She saw him more clearly this time. He had stringy black hair and pale skin covered with what her grandmother called a wish-beard (Don’t be like them other boys, her grandmother said to Shanika’s oldest brother. They try too early, ending up with a wish-beard, not a real beard. You wait until you got real man hair.)
The kid’s eyes were black and almost empty, and his mouth a straight line. He had a piercing just below his bottom lip—a red jewel that almost got lost in the wish-beard. He wore a Poison T-shirt with the sleeves ripped out, revealing faded tattoos that made his skinny arms look almost green.
If it weren’t for the expensive leather duffel leaning against his ripped jeans, Shanika would’ve thought he was as poor as she was. But something about him was off—staged, almost, as if he wanted everyone to think he had come from nothing.
She nearly missed the bottom step and staggered onto the curb. Some nice kid from Minneapolis who’d been trying to chat her up through the whole ride caught her arm and steadied her.
“Okay?” he asked.
She nodded. Her mom hadn’t even noticed.
But the kid near the valet stand had. His gaze met hers and she shivered. The red jewel under his lip actually glowed.
Then he smiled slightly, whirled, and headed inside the hotel. As he stepped through the door, the air around him turned gray, green, and black. More like smoke this time than a glow, but just as startling. And then, just as she was trying to figure out exactly what he was, those sharp edges reappeared and she got that sense of a contained detonation all over again.
Then she couldn’t see him anymore as he stepped deeper into the hotel’s gloom.
Her heart was racing. There was something really off with that kid. What she was seeing wasn’t an aura. She knew (thanks, Mom!) that American Magic had hired aura readers during Season 2 and that actually enabled the show to get rid of half of the troublesome contestants before they even hit their second round of pre-camera auditions.
No, this kid had something else.
Shanika looked around for one of the producers. She saw Carly, the producer who had interviewed her back in Chicago.
Shanika sidled up beside her.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Shanika said.
Carly looked tired, her dark hair frizzing in the humidity. But to her credit, she smiled when she realized who was beside her.
“Hey, Shanika,” she said. “What can I help you with?”
“Did you see that kid near the valet stand?” Shanika asked. “There’s something scary about him.”
Carly didn’t make light of Shanika’s comment, like Shanika expected. Instead, Carly glanced at the valet stand, then looked around. “Guess I missed him. What’s the problem? Has he done something to you?”
“No,” Shanika said. “But there’s something off about him.”
She tried to explain the gray-green-black stuff threaded with red, and how that was a warning. She could tell from the expression on Carly’s face that Carly thought Shanika was just magically overwrought.
“I’ll look into it,” Carly said.
“You don’t even know what he looks like.” Shanika clenched her fist, sent a tiny bit of image-magic to it, and then opened her hand. A tiny three-dimensional image of the kid and the valet stand sat on her palm for a moment before rising to Carly’s eye level.
“You’re not supposed to do magic outside of the practice rooms,” Carly said, but the words sounded automatic, almost like she had to say them because it was some rule or something.
But she wasn’t even looking at Shanika as she spoke. Instead, Carly was looking at the tiny image of the weird kid. She held up her phone and snapped a picture of the image.
“Now, get rid of that,” Carly said.
Shanika snapped her fingers and the image disappeared.
“You’re going to do something, right?” Shanika asked.
“I’m pretty sure he’s already on our radar, but I’ll make certain,” Carly said. Then she looked at Shanika and smiled. “Stop worrying, hon. Go have a good time. This is a strange experience, but the folks who have fun are the ones who do the best.”
Shanika made herself smile. Carly was right: Shanika needed to focus on herself and on doing her best, if only to make it to the real money. But that kid had creeped her out, and she couldn’t help herself. She worried.
She knew, though, if she told her mother about this, her mother would say it wasn’t Shanika’s problem. Let the experts handle it, her mother would say.
But in Shanika’s world, the “experts” (which was Mom’s code word for “adults”) usually needed Shanika’s help.
Still, she slipped past Carly, found her mother, and helped her wheel their luggage into the huge hotel atrium. Pictures of famous witches hung everywhere, and in the lobby’s center, there was a bronze statue of the Witch Trials—that moment when the Puritan Judge Magistrates learned they weren’t the most powerful people in Salem. The statue was almost life-size, and took up the center of the room. A lot of contestants were staring at the figures, and at the magic, portrayed as rays of sunlight streaming out of the townspeople’s hands.
Organizers stood near the lobby desk, handing out keycards and explaining the rules. They also gave out slips of paper with the rules printed on them.
Shanika took hers before her mother could grab them. Shanika scanned the hotel assignments, saw that she and her mother were sharing a room, and sighed quietly. She’d been hoping to share with someone else, just so that she could meet someone for the few days they were in Salem, but that wasn’t going to happen.
Shanika grabbed her luggage and followed the stream of contestants to the elevators, her mother scurrying behind.
The competition didn’t officially start until the next morning, but American Magic provided a buffet dinner and magic coaches for anyone who felt their routine needed a touch-up. Also, performers had to sign one last waiver, promising (yet again) that they would avoid dark magic. If they were doing original spells, they had to have those spells approved through a committee, who searched for any hint of darkness.
Shanika watched the steady stream of contestants go into a banquet room with a sign taped to the double-doors that read Original Spells. She half-expected to see that kid go in there, but she didn’t.
She didn’t see him at all that night. If Carly hadn’t told her that he was being watched, Shanika would’ve thought that he was just a figment of her overactive imagination.
She barely slept that night, and learned at the banquet breakfast that half of the contestants didn’t sleep either. No one looked well rested, and some people looked like they were on the edge of some kind of breakdown. Hands shook, voices raised, and the occasional spell sizzled.
Anyone who accidentally used magic that morning got one warning. If they used it again—like one girl did, to change her breakfast to something she really wanted—they were automatically sent home. That girl burst into tears, crying, “But I always do that at home!”
No one cared. Most contestants didn’t even look.
Shanika thought about all the times she had quietly used magic at home. Her mother and grandmother frowned on “wasted” spells. They claimed that a person’s magical reservoir was not infinite, and if someone made too much frivolous magic, then their powers would eventually diminish.
Shanika had seen that theory repeated on the Internet and in some books on magical child-raising, but she had never seen evidence that that theory had basis in fact. Still, good parents made their kids use magic wisely—never to advance themselves without effort, never to punish someone else, never to alter another person’s form without that person’s permission.
The rules that most mage parents used for child-raising were, in fact, the Good Conduct Rules hammered out here in Salem after the carnage of the Witch Trials, when it became clear that the magical could wipe out the religious with a blink of an eye.
The magical didn’t want to do that. They wanted to continue to live in harmony with the rest of the community, like they had done for centuries.
And the only way to repair the damage done by the deaths and accusations on both sides was to come up with a set of rules—most of which had been coded into law around the country.
That was why so much of magic had moved from basics like protection and augmentation to performance. Performances were safe, and legal, and often fun. Performance magic had a joyful component that most utilitarian magic did not.
Shanika wasn’t a big performance magic fan. She would rather listen to a good symphony. Music was magic to her, which was why she tried to ditch her mom when they arrived at the Thirteen Colonies Theater. Shanika had seen the band standing outside the stage door. The other contestants didn’t recognize the band, but Shanika did.
She had watched them more than she had watched the performances when American Magic played on TV at home.
“Can I watch you guys practice?” she asked.
“You a contestant?” One of the musicians asked. She recognized him. He was the band leader, Melvin Moody.
She knew that answering correctly would get her sent to the other door, but she wasn’t sure lying was the best policy either.
“I am,” she said, “but I’m more interested in music. I’d love to see what you do—”
“So you can see how the other contestants prepare.” Moody rolled his eyes. “No cheating, girlie.”
“I’m not cheating,” she said, her voice going up. “I—I don’t want to be a performing mage. I want to be a concert pianist. My mother made me audition. She’s over there.”
Shanika nodded toward her mother who was standing near the main door that the contestants were filing through. Her mother glared, and waggled her fingers in a get your butt over here now movement.
“Yeah,” Moody said. “Sure. Right.”
“Seriously,” Shanika said. “I loved how you used Flight of the Bumblebee last year to accompany the failure montage. I loved that you had someone blat it on a tuba when that one guy toppled over his entire table, sending toads everywhere.”
The musicians looked at each other, then at her. She might not have convinced them, but she at least had their attention.
“Tell you what,” Moody said. “You make it through to the next round, and tonight we’ll show you the dailies, so you can see what we did from our perspective.”
“You’ll lose practice time if you do that,” one of the other musicians said, in a tone that implied it was a really bad idea.
She didn’t care. “Oh, thank you,” she said. “Where will I find you?”
“The Sarah Good Ballroom,” Moody said. “We’ll be there about eight.”
Shanika clasped her hands together, and grinned with joy. “Thank you!” she said again as she scurried toward her mother.
“What are you getting into?” her mother asked.
Shanika didn’t answer. Instead, she hurried to her place in line. She found her name on the call sheet and her number.
“Oh, dear,” her mother said. “Afternoon. Everyone knows the morning sessions are more lenient.”
Shanika didn’t care. She took her name badge and headed to the practice area. She had a reason to stay for the evening besides the money. She got to see real professional musicians at work. She couldn’t wait for that.
That alone might make the entire trip worthwhile, even if she got no airtime (or money) at all.
Her spell was simple enough, and it used her musical talents. She would conjure an entire jazz band, one instrument at a time, and have each instrument play something simple. Then she was going to—without magic—scat over the band, making her voice an instrument too.
She had done a fashion spell in her United Center audition, taking the clothes that one of the camera operators was wearing (with his permission) and making them as fashionable as the clothes celebrity superstar judge Vivian Singh was wearing. But Shanika had made the alteration without fundamentally changing the clothes the camera operator wore. She just dusted the clothes up a bit, and gave them a bit of sparkle.
This spell, the one Shanika planned to do here, was a lot more complicated. Her mother wanted her to save it for one of the later rounds, but Shanika wasn’t sure she’d make it that far.
Besides, she really wanted to see what the musicians did, so she had to make sure she would stick around. And—a side benefit—the spell would prove to them that she was a musician too.
So she practiced during the morning session before finding her mother in the balcony just before the lunch break.
“I’ve been counting,” her mother said, staring at the stage. “They want 125 to move to the next round, and so far, they’ve picked 56. The afternoon will get progressively tougher.”
Shanika forced those words to wash over her. She wasn’t going to listen to her mother’s panic. Instead, Shanika was going to focus on making it to the evening.
She looked around the auditorium. She had gotten used to being in near-empty auditoriums for the music competitions she’d participated in—alone—in Chicago. There, the competitors would often watch in sullen silence, refusing to clap or cheer a good performance.
Here, the smattering of parents and friends who had come along managed to make the place sound a lot more lively than it actually was.
Shanika leaned over the reinforced metal railing at the seats below. Maybe fifty of the contestants were watching. Some had probably already been chosen to go on; others were simply waiting for their turns.
No parents were allowed to sit down there, but some of the producers sat near the doors. Up front, a sparkly shield covered everything from the first row of seats back.
Most contestants didn’t have enough magic to see the shield. Shanika knew that because the producers had mentioned it repeatedly. Only a small handful had enough magic or the right magic to see it.
The magical shield had existed since the start of the competition so no parents could augment their kids’ talents and no competitors could shoot out some magical bomb to spoil someone else’s performance.
It also protected the audience from any spell that went seriously awry. The judges used to sit behind the shield, but this latest group of judges, which featured some of the most powerful mages in magical performance, felt they couldn’t properly view spells through a shield.
They figured they could handle the risk of a badly executed spell. So far, they’d put out several fires, stopped a misfired perfume smell that would have turned everything into a powerful foul stink that could’ve lasted for days, and barely dodged an out-of-control chocolate rain.
Shanika wouldn’t have wanted their job for anything, but apparently the judges saw this sort of thing all the time.
She leaned back even more and realized that from this position she could see the contestants waiting in the wings. Everyone had to go backstage thirty minutes before their group’s assigned time. Then, one by one, they’d be called by name, to do a minimum of a thirty-second performance to a maximum two-minute performance.
At any point, the judges could interrupt or stop the proceedings. Contestants knew that. Rules stated that any contestant who performed an uninterruptable spell would be automatically disqualified.
Which didn’t stop contestants from trying it anyway.
The contestant on the stage, an already balding white man with the stage name Wizardo! in a 1970s blue tux, was going for humor. He had already conjured a top hat out of thin air; next (she knew) he would pull a real live rabbit out of it.
It would’ve been a cute little spell—funny even—if Shanika hadn’t seen fifteen versions of it from fifteen other contestants at the United Center a few months ago. Wizardo! still might have pulled it off if he’d made some kind of fun about the cultural stereotypes he was playing with. Maybe if he had a riff about the way the unwashed masses used to believe magic wasn’t real or the fact that anyone can (and often did) pull a rabbit out of a hat. But he didn’t. He was using ancient patter, probably from a history book.
Shanika leaned slightly sideways so that she could see the contestants in the wings. They were scrunching forward, as if they couldn’t wait to get on stage. It certainly wasn’t the guy’s patter that was drawing them.
Then something else caught her eye: the kid from the United Center and the valet parking podium was standing farther upstage than he should have been. What caught Shanika’s eye was the stage manager, who was speaking into a microphone attached to her headset as she snapped her fingers at the kid, then pointed deeper in the wings, obviously giving him a command to move.
The kid ignored her.
Shanika’s stomach lurched. He was turning a slight gray-green. The stage manager had walked away, gesturing at someone else, and the other contestants were watching the stage.
Driscoll Johnson, the cutest of the celebrity judges, had stopped the current contestant and was grilling him about the bunny—where did it come from? How did the contestant plan to return the freaked-out bunny to its point of origin? Did the contestant think about the fate of magicked bunnies or did he just use them and toss them away like they weren’t even living creatures?
Everyone was laughing except Wizardo!, Shanika, and the kid in the back. Those spikes were starting to show, streaked with red—and she knew, she knew that this time, the explosion wouldn’t be contained.
The kid was standing in the perfect spot to destroy every contestant on the stage and to literally bring down the roof. The power from the blast—if she could judge from what he was building—would hit the judges, the stage managers, the camera operators, and maybe even dent the shield.
“Mom,” she said, tugging her mom’s sleeve. Her mother was laughing just like everyone else. “Mom.”
Her mother frowned at her. “What?”
“Go get help.”
“What?” her mother asked.
The kid’s cloud or aura or whatever it was had gained black streaks along with the red. The spikes looked armed and dangerous.
“Just get security!” Shanika cried and launched herself forward.
She zoomed toward the stage, pointing her body like a bullet, and broke through the sparkles in the shield. People started screaming, and the celebrity judges were on their feet. The rabbit escaped from Wizardo!’s hand, and the stage manager was yelling at Shanika.
She didn’t care.
She grabbed all the gray goo around the kid, and shoved it at the spikes, then wrapped him up in as much fabric as she could find.
The stage manager was still yelling at her, and Shanika said, “Help me, for heaven sake. He’s using black magic!”
The kid was struggling in her arms, and she was running out of strength. She couldn’t keep pulling fabric from thin air, and the gray goo she had appropriated from him was reforming as blast spikes.
Another girl jumped on Shanika, and reinforced her fabric spell with some kind of plastic spell.
“Don’t cover his face,” Shanika said. “It’ll kill him.”
“But he’s conjuring out loud,” the girl said. It took both of them to hold him down.
She was right: the kid was speaking his spell.
Shanika used the last of her magic to wrap a gag around his mouth. The gag was pink and it sparkled, and his eyes narrowed. He spat, but he couldn’t get the fabric out of his mouth.
More people piled on, and then security came, and someone pulled Shanika off the kid. They shoved clear protection shields around the kid, and that’s when Shanika noticed that she had wrapped him up fashionably, in an outfit that made the tux Wizardo! had been wearing actually look like something a celebrity would wear on the red carpet. The kid even had on a top hat, only his head had been shoved through it, and the top hat—a super-large one—covered his shoulders and arms, holding them in place.
Shanika’s legs wobbled, and she suddenly felt very dizzy. Someone caught her and eased her to the ground. She looked up. It was Driscoll Johnson.
“Get her some water, Gatorade, something,” he said. “She’s having a reaction.”
This was not how she imagined being close to Driscoll Johnson. She couldn’t even smile weakly at him.
“She got through the shield?” Vivian Singh asked, crouching beside Shanika.
“Like it was tissue,” Seth Lee, the other celebrity judge said. “She shouldn’t have been able to do that.”
He sounded scared.
“We’ll worry about it later,” Driscoll Johnson said. “She saved us all.”
“Does that mean she won?” Shanika’s mother asked. Shanika hadn’t even seen her arrive. Shanika closed her eyes and wished she were somewhere else. Anywhere else.
But she didn’t have any magical reserves to make that wish come true.
“We all won,” Driscoll Johnson said. “Thanks to your daughter, today, we all won.”
In the end, they disqualified her. She had broken two major rules—she had broken the shield between the contestants and the audience, and she had interrupted another contestant’s routine.
It didn’t matter that if she hadn’t, everyone would have died. It didn’t matter that if she hadn’t, American Magic would have gone off the air in a spectacular way.
It didn’t matter how much her mother argued for her, the lawyers and the suits and the network all decided Shanika couldn’t continue to participate.
Which Shanika didn’t mind, even though her mother was heartbroken. Shanika wanted to go home. She didn’t want the attention that the incident was foisting on her.
There was talk, led by Driscoll Johnson, of giving her some kind of monetary award for saving the day, particularly after her sob-story interview got played over and over again on national television (along with photos of her grandmother’s tiny house). The analysts all noted that Shanika had learned how to do powerful protect spells because she lived in a gang neighborhood.
She never bothered to tell anyone she’d actually learned the spells by augmenting the spells her mother and grandmother had already performed to protect the house. Shanika never got the chance to define her own narrative, as the producers would have said. She was the little poor girl who had to defend her house and ended up defending everyone at American Magic too.
Three different clothing companies wanted to buy her spells for protective gear, and the Defense Department wanted to consult with her for military applications, and somehow, the organizers of American Magic claimed they had the rights to negotiate for her, and her mother stepped in (thank heavens) because Shanika was underage.
All Shanika wanted was to hang out with the band. She never got the chance to see the dailies, and by the time she thought to ask (a few days later), she was told the band never showed dailies to anyone. It didn’t matter how much she said she was invited, she couldn’t get through that door.
Typical. Because no one was listening to her, like they’d failed to listen to her before. She’d known that kid was trouble from the beginning. Apparently, he was part of a coven that had been trying to sabotage American Magic for ten seasons. The coven hated American Magic for trivializing magic.
The kid claimed that he would have set off the explosion spell, and then others from his coven would have swooped in and repaired everything before anyone got hurt.
But no others from his coven had been anywhere near the Thirteen Colonies theater that day. It soon became clear that someone had sent the poor kid into the situation alone to die in the explosion, and take the full blame, so the coven could continue its campaigns against performance magic unmolested.
The coven was being rounded up, the kid was talking to the authorities, and everyone connected with American Magic was giving interviews about how scared they had been.
The interviews finally ended, and the negotiations continued (who knew that Mother was good at that stuff?) and Driscoll Johnson made it clear to the producers and the network that if they didn’t find a way to financially reward Shanika, he would denounce them publically.
But everything was in limbo. Mostly, she wandered the hotel, where the contestants continued to strive to be the next Magical American. She had an honored seat for the performances if she wanted to see them, but she didn’t.
Instead, she played the piano in one of the banquet rooms, and wished she had never gone to the United Center auditions in the first place.
She was playing her favorite Chopin sonata when a shadow loomed over her. She stopped and sent up a protection shield before she realized she had even taken her fingers off the keys.
“Hey! I’m not trying to hurt you!”
She turned. The band leader Melvin Moody stood behind her. He looked as tired as she felt.
“When you talked to us that day,” he said, “I had no idea you were so talented.”
“Me, either,” she said, sliding into her interview response. “I had no idea I could go through that shield—”
“I know,” he said. “I heard. But I’m not talking about the magic. I’m talking about the music.”
She relaxed for the first time since she got here. The protection shield vanished as if it had never been.
“I want to be a concert pianist,” she said.
“That’s what you said.” He slipped onto the piano bench beside her, keeping a careful distance between them. “I had forgotten that until I heard someone playing. I haven’t heard Chopin played with such passion—maybe ever.”
“Forgive me for asking,” he said. “Just consider it a fault of my job, but do you use performance magic to augment your play?”
It was a point of pride among professional musicians: no magic allowed. Music was its own magic. She loved that, always had.
“No,” she said, trying not to sound offended.
He nodded, looked at the music stand, and then at her, as if he were thinking about something.
“You have to be here awhile, don’t you?” he asked.
“Until my mom gets back from today’s negotiations,” Shanika said.
“No, I mean in Salem. There’s the court case and the negotiations and—”
“Oh, so much,” she said. “They say it’s better if I don’t go home.”
She sort of agreed. She needed to go back to school, but everyone would want to talk about this—and she was done talking.
Moody ran a finger along the keys. “How would you…like to play with us?” he asked, slowly, as if he had come to a decision in the middle of his question.
“Tonight? Jam?” she asked.
He smiled. “No,” he said. “Play with us until the end of the show.”
“What?” She wasn’t sure she had heard him right.
He shrugged. “Our pianist just quit. One of the contestants tried to make an entire platoon of Gummy Bears dance on top of the piano and melted them into the strings instead, and that was the last straw for the pianist. He quit.”
Shanika sighed. “So you want me for my protection abilities.”
“No.” Moody looked down at his fingers, then played a soft C chord. “You’re a hundred times more talented than he is.”
“At the piano,” Moody said. “The pianist who just quit? He couldn’t play Chopin. Not like you just did.”
This felt unreal. Shanika stared at Moody and said the first thing that came to mind. “I’m only fifteen.”
“I know,” he said.
“I’m supposed to be in school,” she said.
“We have teachers here for the underage contestants,” he said. “They can help you too.”
Her cheeks flushed. Playing music. On a big stage.
It wasn’t classical music, but it was music. Playing concerts. Learning how to be professional. A professional musician.
Her dream come true.
Shanika grinned at Moody. “Yes, I’d like to play with the band,” she said.
He shook her hand, and said something about rehearsals and a contract. She’d let her mom worry about the contract. Shanika would worry about the rehearsals.
Her heart was pounding, and she felt better than she ever had in her life.
The auditions at the United Center hadn’t worked the way she wanted. They hadn’t worked the way her mother wanted either.
But they had worked—better than Shanika had ever expected.
Copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Fiction River: Sparks, edited by Rebecca Moesta, WMG Publishing, March 2016
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2016 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Fergregory/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
September 17, 2016
I remember the moment vividly: I was reading Runners World, and an essayist mentioned that while running a race, a person nearby collapsed. The essayist was appalled that she (he?) had a momentary thought— Should I just leave the person there and keep trying for my personal best?—before stopping to help. The essay was about how bad the person felt for the thought.
I can’t remember the author of the essay (and am too pressed for time to try to find it) but I remember my writer reaction. That zing of recognition, of a story coming together in my mind. Only for some reason, I knew that this situation had to take place on the Moon at an extreme marathon, being run outside of the dome. And the person doesn’t just collapse, the person who falls dies.
That’s the opening to my second Retrieval Artist novel, Extremes. The book does standalone. It got great reviews, and really solidified the series for me.
And now that book is in a Storybundle which J. Daniel Sawyer first conceived as an extreme sf sports bundle. Now it’s just extreme sf, but that’s nifty cool too.
I’ve read three of the books besides my own. Dean (Wesley Smith) just finished Star Fall last month. It also features a running race, but it makes my Moon marathon look pale. These folks are running across a huge spaceship–and it takes them weeks. (Fortunately, they do it in relays.) The book is about a space mystery, and is totally nifty.
Kevin J. Anderson’s Climbing Olympus is a cool Mars-based sf novel. Impossible to put down, the details are great too, because Kevin climbs mountains as a hobby.
The third book I read is Fiction River: Risktakers. It’s filled with all kinds of risk-taking protagonists, from Dan C. Duval’s “Play The Man” (chosen as one of the best mysteries of the year) to Lee Allred’s “Side Bet,” which every gamer will love.
The bundle includes other wonderful writers, from Mike Resnick to Blaze Ward. So take some armchair adventures with the Extremes SF Bundle. It’s better than trying to run on the Moon–or at least, less expensive.
Oh, speaking of expense: $5 will get you 5 books. $15 will get you all of them. Plus you can donate to some charities benefiting writers, if you would like.
And…since we’re three days away from the end of the Kickstarter, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it. There’s a great deal in the heart of the Kickstarter now. Because we’ve been hitting our stretch goals, that $5 reward–which was initially for 1 ebook edition of Fiction River—will now get you 4 books: 2 Fiction River volumes and 2 Fiction River Presents volumes. If we hit the remaining stretch goal, you’ll get an additional volume. So right now–4 books for $5. Maybe, if we’re succeed at hitting the last stretch goal, 5 books for $5.
And because I must, here’s another video from Fiction River. It’s not the sf ones (I used those), so I opted for the Mysterious Stories of Fiction River. Enjoy!
September 14, 2016
I knew, after I finished (finished!) the long series on contracts and dealbreakers that I would need to write some upbeat posts, just for me. Believe me, those contracts are a true and utter nightmare, compounded by the writers who say (in public and in private emails) that they know agents will screw them and traditional publishers will destroy their careers but the writers want that anyway.
I’ve learned, through long hard lessons, to let those writers go. (Frankly, in real life, you have to let people like that go as well.) That’s why Dean and I have a sign on the wall of the workshop space at WMG Publishing which says You are Responsible For Your Career. The writers see it, and maybe understand its truth. Because if we try to rescue every writer we see walking down a wrong path, we would never get anything else done.
Still, it’s hard to watch them walk the path, climbing over the barbed wire fences, ignoring the gigantic warnings and the KEEP OUT signs along the way.
I missed my normal time to write the blog post because…September. You’ll understand in a minute. And I’m writing this at the last possible minute, while I’m exhausted and have fried-cheese brain, because…September.
Believe it or not. Because…September…is actually a positive thing. It turns out that this month may be the busiest month of my working life.
I didn’t plan it. Had I planned it, things wouldn’t have collided.
I’m great with schedules. I have a dozen calendars, all with great purpose. I have a computer calendar that notifies me of deadlines and future projects.
It all works—when I have writing deadlines. I set it up for traditional publishing writing deadlines.
I jettisoned writing deadlines nearly two years ago. I still have a few, but they’re all for short stories. All three of them. The writing I’m getting done is deadline-free. I don’t even put it on a publishing schedule with anyone until the book is done.
I have editing deadlines, and they’re on the calendar, but they’re nothing compared to the days when I edited a monthly magazine. So the calendar still looks bare.
What happened in September? Well, as a traditionally trained writer, a confluence of things that I never used to put on a calendar—unless it required going out of town.
I have never put promotion on my calendar. Ever. Because I do the minimal amount. It’s easier when I have so many projects to let the fans of the projects know four things:
that I’m working on the project;
that the project is finished (and available for preorder, if it is);
the project is in print and available; and…
the project is in some kind of special discounted something or other that the readers might want to know about.
When the bulk of what I published went through traditional publishers, I didn’t do #1 (much) because [ahem] the internet wasn’t as big a deal back then and newsletters were hard (uphill. Snow. Both ways). I didn’t do #4 because I never knew when something was being discounted. There weren’t a lot of opportunities on that front.
So, I promoted a book once it was available to order, only often the promotion was publisher-arranged, and it had to do with bookstores. I was an early adapter of websites. This website has existed in one form or another since 1997. I would post on it, and I had an Amazon bookstore, back when Amazon was the only game in town. (That’s why my Amazon bookstore still looks like an ancient Amazon bookstore. I haven’t had time to update it.)
I would also promote once the book was published. Most of that promotion happened when the publisher said “Stand here.” or “Sign there.” Personal appearances made it onto the calendar. So did conventions. I tried to go at least one near a book’s release. I would make sure that my fans knew about the new book, as best I could, and then I would go back to doing what I did best. I’d write the next book.
Quietly, and with a lot of focus.
I had noticed that my promotional efforts have crept up in the last few years, because there are so many more opportunities, but I don’t overdo, partly because I’d rather write. I know there are effective things I could do, and things I’d like to get to, but I haven’t reached that point yet, and I’m not sure I ever will.
And because I’m an early adapter, many of my systems (like my Facebook account) are set up wrong, and I have no time to correct them.
Fast-forward to February of 2015. I talked to Toni Weisskopf of Baen about the women in science fiction book. She bought it in March of 2015, and I got underway, editing what would become Women of Futures Past. Toni wanted time to promote the book properly, so we decided on a September 2016 publication date.
I said I would promote heavily. Some of that promotion has gone by the wayside due to my health, but I still can do radio, podcasts, blogs, and a bunch of other things. Baen has done a lot of promotion, getting the book out to traditional review venues and some not-so-traditional venues. I’m gearing up for some podcasts and radio interviews, plus I have some things for the Women in SF site that will start hitting next week.
I wrote an essay that I published concurrently with the book’s publication on September 6. I did two newsletters, one for the women in sf group, and one for my regular newsletter. I have blog posts from some of the women in the volume, and those will go up on the site, starting next week, with more cool things to follow.
I even hired someone to help me clean up the website, but she hasn’t started yet, because I haven’t gotten her the right materials. Why? Because…September.
September 2016 looks very far away when you’re standing in Spring of 2015.
I didn’t put the promotion on my calendar because I wasn’t traveling anywhere, and because I didn’t have any interviews lined up that would take actual meeting time.
I just figured promotion would be part of the daily routine.
And it would have been if not for the fact that I finished the first Diving novel in three years (and the second Diving novel, and started the third). That first new Diving novel is a backstory novel, so WMG decided not to go the usual promotion route. They decided to publish the book ASAP, which meant that as soon as we had a cover, I started in on the promotion, letting the Diving newsletter folks know the book was coming, and updating that website.
Then, at the beginning of September, the new Diving book, The Falls, became available for preorder. A new round of newsletters, blogging, and minor promotion started.
Not a big deal. If it weren’t for…
My own bone-headedness.
Back in the spring, Kevin J. Anderson asked me to contribute something to an Epic Fantasy Storybundle. When Kev curates a Storybundle, lots of people who don’t normally find my work find it. I said yes.
I asked the date, and he said, “Fall sometime.”
Turned out “Fall sometime” was…you guessed it…September.
Now, here’s the thing about short-term discount offers like Storyundle. They’re a great chance to get your work in front of thousands of people who don’t normally see it. But Storybundles and Humblebundles and Amazon bundles and BundleRabbit and all of those things only work if everyone lets their own fans know that the bundle exists.
And, when you’re in a bundle like that, you have to let readers know in a variety of ways. Once is not enough, because people won’t see it otherwise.
So, with this Epic Fantasy Bundle with my novel Heart Readers in it, I had to send a newsletter and blog and tweet, and share, and do my part. Now, I was able to combine the promotion for the fantasy bundle with the Diving promotion (in one thing) and with the Kickstarter promotion, but I can’t always do that.
For example, in January or February, a former student of mine, Nic Tatano, asked me if I had a book for a political thriller bundle that would run during the election. I sent him the award-winning The Enemy Within, which he hadn’t seen, and a few weeks later, he said he thought the book perfect. So, it was in.
And I forgot about it until it came time to assemble the bundle. Turned out that the Political Thriller bundle started one week after the Epic Fantasy Bundle.
Whole different crowd, whole different set of writers. Fortunately, the Political Thriller bundle ends the day after the election. (The Epic Fantasy Bundle ends in September.) I can promote the thriller bundle after September, all the way into November. Yay!
But wait, there’s more! You see, J. Daniel Sawyer, a writer who lives just down the street from me (closer to the ocean, dang him) asked me if I had a science fiction novel that revolves around extreme sports. Sure enough, I do, and it was conveniently called Extremes. I have no idea when Dan asked me that, but I know it might have been as long as a year ago. I agreed to be in a bundle with that book too, if Dan got the bundle into Storybundle, and he did, and the Extreme Science Fiction bundle starts…this week.
That bundle ends the first week of October, so I have to do some September promotion, but I can wait at least until next week. Except next week, I’m teaching…
That doesn’t count the BundleRabbit promotions I’m in, some of which linger on in bundles on Amazon. Most of those end up as collections of short stories, so they take less promotion, but still, they need just a bit of time and attention too.
And then—and then—
We’ve been talking about doing a Kickstarter subscription drive for Fiction River for the past six months or so. Dean would say that we’re going to do it at the same time of year as the previous subscription drive, which I remembered as August, but which was mostly—you guessed it—September.
Kickstarters take some additional promotion, which I usually don’t mind. It’s like bundle promotion. You just have to let people know the Kickstarter exists.
Except…I wanted to experiment. I wanted to see if we could communicate the contents of Fiction River through a series of video trailers, like the film industry does when it tries to communicate the contents of its movies.
I had a vision for the trailers and rather than hire someone else to do it, like I did with our last subscription drive, I decided to do them. I was deeply dissatisfied with what we had done before, and I felt we could do better.
I did a series of trailers, all focusing either on a different genre or a different mood or, in one case, on the writers and anthology series itself. You can see most of the trailers on the Kickstarter page at the bottom, but I’m going to share one of the videos here.
This is my favorite (today, anyway). All of the trailers tell some kind of story or set some kind of mood, but this little 45 second piece does both. And it’s no surprise that this trailer was the last one I did.
Frankly, I just thought of these as the kind of advertising you see all over the place—informational advertising. Not impressions advertising, where you’re trying to get a click-through, but just an ad campaign that raises awareness about the product itself.
These videos have worked far better than I expected. They allowed us to show the possible subscribers and supporters that Fiction River is eclectic. The videos had an interesting side benefit: we started selling individual copies of the anthology series on other platforms, like Amazon, when a particular video hit. So, for example, if this Thriller trailer catches people’s attention, we’ll see a spike in the sales of Pulse Pounders as well as a few people heading over to the Kickstarter.
We’ll be using the videos in other promotions all year. I might have to tweak the videos, but that’s not a big deal. I also used the videos to learn video programs, and to practice some techniques. It was a win-win-win. And it only took a week’s worth of my time.
Only I didn’t take the week all at once. I took it on Sundays and Wednesdays. Wednesday is usually my day off, and I take part of Sunday too. So rather than cut into my writing time, I used those days to “take a class” if you will and practice something new.
I was excited about that. It worked well.
And then the Kickstarter began at the end of August—and suddenly, it was September, and I had to promote the Kickstarter too.
Anyway, if I had paid attention and used my calendar like I used to for deadlines, I would have seen this piling up. But I didn’t. Because looking at promotion like a big important task is just not in my wheelhouse. I generally don’t believe in it.
As I said above, I usually only do the minimum, except when I’m experimenting (Kickstarter) or when I’m doing something unusual, like a Storybundle. And even with those things, I rarely reach the frequency of promotion that most indie writers do.
I really believe in the power of writing the next book.
But, this month, I found a hole in my thinking. You see, traditionally trained me, I think of promotion as something you do for the current or upcoming book, not for what the industry calls backlist titles. Even though I know there is no real such thing as backlist anymore. All books are new to someone.
So, I find myself in September, promoting:
A new release, Women of Futures Past .
An upcoming release, The Falls: A Diving Universe Novel .
And in the past, it would have ended there. But, that’s only the beginning. Because I also find myself promoting:
An anthology series, Fiction River, that has 19 issues in print, with more to come. (First volume published in 2013 [and available in the Epic Fantasy Storybundle!]. Most recent volume published in July.)
A novel, The Enemy Within, (Political Thriller Bundle) first published in 2014, and still in print.
A novel, Extremes: A Retrieval Artist Novel , (Extreme SF Bundle) first published in 2003, and back in print with a new publisher.
A novel, Heart Readers , (Epic Fantasy Storybundle) first published in 1993 (!), and back in print with a new publisher.
To say that these last four things are completely unexpected isn’t quite true. Because I did know that the promotions were coming. They just Did Not Compute as something that should go on Kris’s to-do list.
I have realized that I must change the way I budget my promotion time, and the way I use my calendars. I now must track the upcoming promotions, so that they don’t overlap. Or if they do, I have a game plan going in.
Because I didn’t have one as of September 1. I was buffeted by the promotional winds, as it were, and I lost some writing time because of it. Which is completely unacceptable.
It’s odd to think that I must completely revamp the way that I look at the way I use time in my writing career. I’ve done it the same way for so many years that revising it is like learning how to breathe all over again.
But, honestly, I wouldn’t change this for the world. I’m proud of the novels. I know some writers renounce their older work. I just look at it as a product of my younger self, who had different interests than I do now. I may know more about technique, but I wouldn’t tell the story in the same way with the same urgency that my younger self had. I think that’s all valuable.
I love that the books are not only back in print, they’re reaching a new audience each and every day. I love the fact that they’re reaching a worldwide audience, and that I control the promotions. I can decide if I want to bundle the books or if I want to lower the price or raise the price or partner with someone else to promote it all.
I love that aspect of this new world.
I also would much rather be too busy with work that actually finds readers rather than work that doesn’t. I’ve gone on book tours. The publishers spent tens of thousands of dollars and often got no real return at all on their investment.
I can partner with other writers and Storybundle, and spend a bit of time (and no money) and attract thousands of new readers.
Hmmm. Which is a better use of my time?
Usually, doing a Storybundle or a Kickstarter or even a podcast interview does not interfere with my writing time. It did this month because, in part, I planned badly. Had I planned better, I wouldn’t have lost any time at all.
I’m on the proper planning schedule now. I spent an entire afternoon organizing my life to reflect the new reality and not the old one. I feel better now.
Less stressed, and quite lucky.
Now, if I can only find the time to assemble the contracts/dealbreakers book…
September 13, 2016
No real publication news today. I just wanted to say thank you to the Kickstarter supporters and the people who have been sharing the Kickstarter with their friends. We hit our third stretch goal late yesterday. That means Kickstarter supporters over the $5 will get three additional books.
Frankly, I’m hoping that we will hit our fourth stretch goal in the week remaining on the Kickstarter campaign. I want to edit that fourth book–or rather, compile it. You see, all the Fiction River editors will get to pick just one more story, the one that got away, as it were, and we’ll put them together into one volume.
If we hit our fourth goal, that is.
For those of you who don’t know, we’ve been running a subscription drive for Fiction River, the anthology series that Dean and I act as series editors for. So far, Fiction River has had nine editors, including us, and it will have three more in the coming year or so. We love showcasing different voices, styles, and genres in Fiction River. You never quite know what you’ll get.
Head over to Kickstarter and watch the videos. We’re trying to give you a sense of the fiction without having you actually read it. (If you want a sample issue, head to Storybundle right now, get the Epic Fantasy bundle with lots of great novels, plus Fiction River: Unnatural Worlds. Once you spend your $15 (and give some to charity), you can download immediately, and sample Unnatural Worlds. If you like what you see, subscribe!)
As a teaser, here’s one of my favorite trailers for Fiction River. This one focuses on some of our writers. We’ve had 137 (or so), which is why they aren’t all in the video, but we have a few to share. Enjoy!
September 10, 2016
Today’s news? I’m in another bundle. This one, the Political Thriller Bundle, will be available until the day after the U.S. election. And while I seriously can’t wait for this particular election cycle to end, I don’t want this bundle to end too quickly—although it will. November 9 is only 61 days away.
When Nick Harlow contacted me about being in the bundle, months and months and months ago, I figured the bundle would be a great idea–a little diversion in the last frantic months of a rather dull political campaign. Hah! Boy, was I wrong. Good thing I don’t write a lot of predictive science fiction set in the near-future.
In fact, as this bundle got underway, and we bundle authors started talking, I suggested that we tell readers that if they need a respite from this political season, they should read something that makes sense—political fiction.
I’ll be honest: I haven’t read every book in this bundle. I have read the work of every author, though, and even bought some of these authors’ works for Fiction River, albeit under different bylines.
September 7, 2016
For the past several months, I’ve focused on contracts, contract negotiations, rights, and dealbreakers.
I know I lost some of my indie (self-published) readers, who are waiting until I finish this series before they return to reading my blog. Those readers believe they will never sign the kind of contract I’m dealing with. They also believe that they’re protected because they’re in business for themselves.
In some respects, they are protected. They don’t have agents trying to scam them, along with publishers trying to grab their rights.
Or do they? You see, many terms of service have rights grabs buried inside the boilerplate—y’know, that stuff you just click through to use someone’s service.
Sometimes, other people will call the service on their bad TOS, and the service will change the TOS—for future agreements. But those changes aren’t always retroactive. If you signed on years ago, when the terms were at their worst, those old terms might still apply to you.
As with all contracts and agreements, it varies from person to person, item to item, contract to contract, and company to company.
Yes, you have to keep track of all of that. You. So start learning this stuff.
Thanks to another writer’s bad situation, last week I was able to link to an existing multimillion dollar book contract, which handily proved every point I was trying to make with this series. Publishers are grabbing rights; agents are worse.
And yet, if you scan through the comments throughout the series—even in the last month—you’ll see writers who still want that traditional publishing deal. Even though they now know (and admit) that they will get screwed.
I can’t help those people. You can’t help those people. Don’t even try.
However, I do know a lot of you have listened throughout this series, and have supported it with your dollars and your shares and your comments. Thank you.
To wrap up, I’m going to address the indie/hybrid writers among us.
I know many of you think you’ll never see these contracts.
I also know many of you still believe some outdated myths.
I’m going to address a few of those myths here.
Myth: You need an agent to sell your books overseas.
Here’s the thing, folks. Any agent you sign with to sell your foreign rights will have all of the bad contract practices I listed in this series. And that agent might (will) insert the same kind of rights-grab language that exists in the contract from last week. On top of all that, your agent in your home country will partner with an agent in the foreign country, so you’ll have two agents grabbing at your money (which is almost untraceable) and at your rights.
Run away. Run.
Besides, folks. Those of you who want an agent to sell your foreign rights have no idea how the agents actually sell those rights. If they sell the rights.
All the agent does is compile a new releases list (usually three times a year) and send it to all the foreign rights agents they partner with. Yes, if you’re one of the big bestsellers, the agent will hand-sell your book to the foreign rights agent, but usually foreign publishers will come calling anyway.
Some agents actually go to overseas book fairs, and talk to foreign rights publishers. The agent pitches their agency and then hands the publisher a list of available works.
The agent does no work. Either they farm out the work to another (foreign) agent. Or they answer the phone or an email. Nothing more.
Finally, agents embezzle from their clients a lot. And the area where the most embezzlement occurs is foreign rights. If your book earns royalties, how will you know? Most writers don’t track their foreign book’s royalty statements. (Heck, most writers don’t track their royalty statements, period.) And if you signed a contract as bad as the one from last week, your publisher(s) don’t have to give you an accurate royalty statement ever. Go back and read it if you doubt me.
The Solution: You can do handle your foreign rights yourself, faster, better, and without losing any copyright or having someone embezzle from you. This world is very small now. You can contact foreign publishers directly.
If those publishers publish English language books in translation, they have people on staff who can read English language emails. Learn how to submit stories and novels to them. A good first step to learning this is the area on award-winning writer Douglas Smith’s website that provides a tutorial in foreign short story markets. If you build a following in a foreign short story market, eventually book publishers in that market will take an interest in your work.
You will also learn the names of translators who might be willing to work with you to translate your work and allow you to indie publish it. But you know what you will need in that circumstance? You’ll need a contract between you and the translator. Heh. Wow. Guess you’ll need to learn more about rights and contracts then.
Even if you only make one traditional foreign sale per year, you will probably earn more than you would ever earn if you hired an agent, even if the agent sold a book for you overseas.
One other point: In 2016, your English-language book will have a worldwide release only if you publish it yourself. Get out of Kindle Select, people, and go wide. Use Kobo, which is growing dramatically. Realize that iBooks has fingers all over the world.
Sure, you might only sell one or two titles to a particular country, but you don’t know if one of those titles sold to an editor at a foreign publishing house who is checking out this English-language book a friend recommended. And if the editor likes your book, then guess what? She’ll contact you via email about how to acquire the translation rights for that book for her company.
Myth: You need an agent to sell your books to big traditional markets.
No, you don’t. You just have to learn how to do it, and as I have said over and over again, I am not going to teach you how to do it.
These contracts and rights deals through traditional publishers are awful, people. They will control your careers and your works. If you want writing to remain a hobby, get a traditional book deal.
If you want a career, stay away from traditional book publishers.
Besides, traditional book publishers are actively cutting their book lines right now. They’re drowning. The numbers I recently heard from Random Penguin/Randy Penguin/whatever they’re calling themselves just in the past month are this: They’re cutting their titles from 900 to 250.
Think there’s room for your book in those 250 slots? Um, no. Writers I know who have been cut this past year include a large number of New York Times bestsellers. Only those writers weren’t mega bestsellers.
That 250 is for Big Guns and people who “write” novelty books, like the Kardashians. Not for you.
But go ahead. Bang your head against that wall. Break through and have leaches and hangers-on destroy your career. If you don’t understand what’s so bad about last week’s contract, and you don’t want to learn, then you’ve figured out what kind of life you want to live—and it certainly ain’t the life of a professional writer.
Traditional Publishers Do It Better
Myth: Traditional publishers will get my book into bookstores.
Really? Where? What bookstores? Small independents? Barnes & Noble? Amazon?
Oh, wait. You mean paper books, right? Yeah. Okay. Still, I ask you. Where? What bookstores? What are you talking about? Do you think it’s still 1999?
Truth: Most books are sold online these days. That includes paper books. If you publish your own books, you can get them into Amazon easily, Barnes & Noble (not as easily), and independent bookstores (if you understand things like Indie-Bound).
Here’s the thing: Even if a traditional publisher publishes your book in paper, no bookstore is obligated to take that book or to put it on the shelf. What indie (self-published) writers learn when they take print-only deals is this: the traditional publisher is no more able to sell print books than the writer was.
And on top of it, the writer loses much of the copyright on their book. In fact, the writer often loses everything in that traditional deal, including and not limited to, money. The writer will also lose control of her next projects, usually due to noncompetes buried in the boilerplate.
If the writer went through an agent, the writer will lose even more. See the clause in the agent agreement from a few weeks ago, in which the agent demanded that the writer have every self-published book approved by the agent before the book goes live. Realize that the agency who has that clause in its contract is as famous as William Morris.
As many indies have learned in the last seven years, paper-only deals are terrible for the writer. Stay away from them. They’re as bad as a regular publishing deal because they are a regular publishing deal.
Myth: Traditional publishers can promote a work better than an indie writer can.
Truth: Take a look at last week’s contract. The only party in that contract who is obligated to promote a book is the writer. The publisher can opt out of promotion at any point.
And that’s if the publisher actually knew how to promote books. Sure, publishers have deep pockets, but they don’t know how to invest in effective advertising or how to sell books to readers. Not bookstores. Readers.
As this world has changed, publishers have changed their marketing strategies not one bit. If you don’t understand this, pick up my book Discoverability and/or look at the blogs for free on this site. (But realize those blogs were published out of order.)
Once again, for an empty promise not backed up in the contract, a writer will lose control of her intellectual property.
And she’ll lose the ability to participate in all of the various ways that books actually do sell to readers.
This month, for example, I’m going to have books in three different Storybundles. Those bundles sell thousands of copies. Most bundlers, like Storybundle, do not work with mainstream publishers—in part because of contractual issues. I’ve curated a few bundles with some traditionally published writers who farmed the work to their agents, and guess what? None of us (me or the bundlers who experienced this) will ever do that again.
Opportunities lost, folks.
No traditional publisher will let you put your book in a 99-cent ebook bundle with other writers on, say, Amazon, not even for a limited time. Because that means the traditional publisher would have to partner with its competitors. The traditional publisher won’t allow it for a $50 ebook bundle either. Not happening.
Nor will most traditional publishers bundle the books in your series together. The traditional publishers publish once and then move on to the next book. Any promotions, any rejiggering of the book itself, will not happen.
I know, I know. You will make your own decision regardless of what I say. And then you’ll write to me as two separate people did this week, saying that they had made a mistake, and could I help them learn how to indie publish after all.
If there’s anything left to indie publish. If you haven’t sold control to all of your books to a major corporation, maybe I’ll be able to help you.
I’m pretty much done with contracts and dealbreakers. Other indie bloggers are quitting because they don’t like the dirty tricks coming out of traditional publishing and they can’t seem to talk their readers out of making bad deals.
I don’t see it as my job to talk you out of anything. My job is to inform you.
I’ve done that with this contracts and dealbreakers series. I am going to list a few points that you should have gotten out of this series, and then, next week, we are moving on.
Point The First: Always hire a lawyer to advise you on legal matters concerning your writing business.
Point The Second: Make sure you have a contract that governs every relationship you have in your business, from the editors you hire to the co-writers you work with.
Point The Third: Learn how to negotiate. (Always do your negotiations via email.)
Point The Fourth: Learn copyright law.
Point The Fifth: Learn copyright law.
Point The Sixth: Hire a lawyer already!
Okay, I’m repeating myself. So I’m going to leave you with a movie recommendation. Watch Begin Again, with Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightly. Watch through the credits. (And yes, Ruffalo’s character is an utter asshole in the first half hour. Stick with it. You’ll understand.)
Realize that the music industry is way ahead of the publishing industry in rights and music publishing and everything else.
If you don’t want to watch the movie, then at least go watch this scene. It’s from the end of the film, so if you plan to watch the movie, don’t watch this clip:
There. I have done what I can.
You are now on your own.
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“Business Musings: Myth Busting,” copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2016 by Canstock Photo/iqoncept.