Weird Research: The Michael Palin Travelogues, Part I: Around the World In Eighty Days

Sheesh, can that title get any longer?

As I said in a previous post, I wanted to revamp my “Weird Research” series. It was getting too much to be a “how to use Wikipedia” tutorial, which was almost the exact opposite of what I wanted to accomplish with that series (Wikipedia has its uses, don’t get me wrong, but you need MORE than Wikipedia for research).  My goal was to show that there are things you never thing to research until you need them, and ways to research that you might never have thought of.  I might have managed to demonstrate the former, but not the later.

So, I figured I would do something fun, by watching the Michael Palin travelogues and taking “notes” for novel research from what I was watching… or at least tell you a little about what I see. Honestly, you should watch these things whether you’re doing research for a book or not.

The first of the travelogues is “Around the World in 80 Days.” And no, it’s not exactly a re-enactment of the Jules Verne novel.

Episode I:

The first episode (filmed from 1988-1989, released first on television in 1989, and on DVD in 2007) begins with establishing the trip. Michael Palin initially (well, at least for the camera) turns down the job, because he doesn’t have eighty days to film it in. It goes into preparation (including getting himself a physical, taking a number of vaccinations, packing, learning how to deal with various different types of crisis, discussing the issues of traveling from point to point, etc.). Interspersed in these scenes is him leaving by high-class British railway train (and later the Orient Express) in a nice suit (which is actually required for part of the train journey, which I would not have thought about), drinking champagne and eating a meal. It’s a good example of the kind of work that you need to do before going on a long journey.

He learns that the particular cabin he was in on the train had, during World War II, been a mobile brothel for soldiers.  While they don’t go into many details on that, it is a starting point to launch further research.

A strike forces him to leave the Orient Express, and instead take a bus to Venice, where he checks into a hotel located on a road he translates as “Pity Street.”  The hotel looks much more middle-class than I’ve seen from most travelogues, which adds a sense of earthiness and realism to the show.

It was a little run down, with peeling paint and wallpaper, but there he spends the night (without complaint).  The next morning he has time for a little exploration, going down the Venitian Canals on a (literal) garbage scow.  Much like a trash truck, the scow picks up trash bags from the side of the street and toss them into a bin.  Any bags which miss the bin have to be fished out by a pole.  He eventually encourages the garbageman he’s with to sing a somewhat bawdy (in italian) song.

Before leaving, he mails home the suit he wore on the Orient Express (he figures he won’t need it any more) and boarded a ferry (or perhaps a cruise ship?)  to cross the Mediterranean in, heading to Cairo by way of Athens.  He quickly demonstrates how easy it is to get lost on the ship.

There is an example of a unique form of bridge (instead of a drawbridge that raises to allow ships to pass, the bridge is lowered into the water underneath the ship), followed by a really narrow canal trip where he could have reached out from the ship and touched the walls.

He has video from Greece of the Ef-zones, one of the more… unusually outfitted military units out there, showing the changing of the guard (which, he says, they seem to do “in the most complicated way possible.”).  Then he has a demonstration of assembling the F-Zone uniforms, which take two people to put on.

But that’s all he has of Greece before he’s back on the cruise ship to Alexandria.  He briefly has some shots of him “helping” in the kitchens, though he quickly concludes that his work there was a boring film segment, and he transitions to a “grand Euro blow-out” dinner prior to hitting Egypt.

The episode concludes with him trying desperately to contact his bank as they enter the port at Alexandria, Egypt, while cameras filmed various ships that appeared to be in distress.

Episode II:

The second episode of this set begins with Michael Palin meeting a very interesting character picking him up in a horse-drawn carriage, of sorts.  Apparently, the driver’s name is Larry (actually Achmed, it is later revealed) and so is the horse’s name.  He ends up in the Alexandrian train (?) station, trying to get tickets for the next part of his journey.

The street scenes are interesting, with people in various forms of dress (styles both ancient and modern), doing various things you wouldn’t see happening on US streets, but he quickly passes through Alexandria and takes the train to Cairo.  On this train, he is able to get tea, but not milk or cream for it.  They show horrible traffic in Cairo, attend a “football” (soccer, for us US-Americans) game, and then he hunts down a non-chain hotel — the Hotel Windsor.  The hotel looks nice at first, but the plumbing doesn’t seem to work.

He gets talked into participating as an extra in a film shooting in Cairo the next day.  He has time for it, even though his original plans for travel were shot when his ship to the city of Jeddah (sp?) left early.  After quickly making alternate plans, he heads to a local bar to get some tea, only to be given a complimentary hooka to smoke (something he’s dubious about, as he had quit smoking twenty years before).

They show a bit of the behind-the-scenes of the film he’s invited to participate in, which is curiously being filmed in a Safeway supermarket.  If you want to get an idea of what film-making is like when you’re in a foriegn country and not supported by a major Hollywood studio or something comparable, this would be a good (if brief) study.

He makes it to the pyramids, and is talked into briefly riding a camel.  It’s his first time riding a camel (though, having seen all of the travelogues before, I know this isn’t his last).

He goes from the touristy camel-ride at the pyramids to a lousy car-trip in a rather run-down car to the Suez, where he learns that his hastily arranged back-up plan to get to Jeddah has been scuppered; the transport’s journey was cancelled because the ship he was going to take has broken down.

He hastily makes a Plan C, and manages to find a ferry to Saudi Arabia.  This new ship was once a cruise ship, and it shows Michael sitting in several sparsely-populated rooms that were once luxury restaurants and the like juxtaposed with the more populated decks where people are just sort of sprawled out wherever they can find room.  Unfortunately, this hitch in his plans makes it impossible to make his connecting ship.

He tries not to panic, showing videos of him playing dominos and bartering for a watch as they travel, but when he arrives in Jeddah he starts trying to make travel arrangements in ernest.  Still uncertain of his plans, he jogs through town, exploring several pieces of unusual, and oversized, modern art (like a bunch of cars cut in half and stuck in a concrete block).

Things get even worse in his plans — he can’t find a way to his next intended port, but even if he gets there he hears there is no way to make the next part of his journey, either.  He solves this with a car-trip across the desert to an alternate (but more distant) port… but cannot film it, because the Saudi government refuses to allow the camera crew past a certain (unspecified on camera) point.  The episode ends with him “abandoning” his film crew on the side of the road, driving onward.  (The film crew flies to catch up)

Episode III:

He can’t show film of his road trip, but he does have a few photographs as he drives over a thousand miles in  a single weekend.  He reunites with his camera crew in the port of Dubai, where he tries to find a dhow to travel to India in.

Port life is shown, as cows and the like are are loaded on board boats and the like.  Michael negotiates the trip from Dubai to Bombay, on a boat that will take a six day trip.  He must purchase his own food and supplies for the journey, and prepare to sleep on sacks of cargo on the deck of the boat.

He has film footage, briefly, of the ship construction — most of these ships are made in classic manners, using hand tools (including slightly modernized forms of primative tools like a bow drill).  This is a working shipyard, and that was really how they were building ships back then; a remarkable insight into the construction of the ships of yesteryear.

This is one of the most remarkable parts of the series, with the whole episode entirely about the short trip across the red sea on a rickety wooden boat, as everything is done by hand and human power.  The boat does have a motor, but it just as often travels by sail.

Michael tries to communicate with the largely Indian crew, even though few of them speak any English (and those that do speak a very broken form of it).  The crew is poorly paid (the crewman notes he is paid only 300 rupees for the journey across the sea.  A single sale of one of my books in India nets me about the same amount, today (which, converted to US dollars, is about $4).  That doesn’t account for 25 years of inflation, but I imagine it’s still a very small amount for six days of work).

Even the preparation of food is fairly primative, as food is crushed on a stone, and the rice is hand-washed in a basin large enough to feed 20, then is cooked on another stone slab (though this stone is heated by a gas flame).  They use compass, sextants and dead reckoning for navigation.  Dining is communal, featuring Indian cuisine (some form of vegetarian saag with a improvised rice porrage using buttermilk is shown, though there is a discussion of other foods).  Michael lets the members of the crew listen to Bruce Springsteen on his Walkman (yes, Walkman; this was the 80s, remember?).  Much of each day is spent conserving energy, as the weather is too hot to do much when the crew isn’t required to work.  When they do have to work, the work is hard, and involves things like climbing masts, pulling old ropes through wooden pulleys, raising sails, etc.

Overall, it is a remarkable look into merchant sailers, with aspects that translate from time immemorial to (evidently) today.  If you were writing a naval adventure, this would show you quite a bit about daily life on a merchant ship.

However, he falls ill during the boat trip (while he doesn’t say it, I speculate it came from the saag that he so enjoyed; there are likely local pathogens the crew has adapted to that a man from England has never been exposed to).  A crewman tries to treat him with a sort of peculiar form of massage (basically walking on Michael), which does seem to help him some.

Michael ends the boat journey, and the episode, with a hearty and sincere farewell to the crew, with farewells all around, as he believes he will never see these people he made fast friends with.  (I have not seen it, but there is evidently a 20th anniversary special where he goes and finds this crew, and has a tearful reunion with them)

Episode IV:

Michael Palin begins the episode that, from London to Calcutta, he is a week behind what Phileas Fogg managed in Jules Vernes’ novel.  He goes to his hotel (the Taj, theoretically the most elegant hotel in India; a rare luxury for him in this series) before showing some street scenes.

He has to turn down a young beggar, which visibly disturbs him, as he notes that the begging problem in India was endemic to the city.  This was evidently on a trip to see a blind barber, from whom he gets a very good shave using a straight razor.

He then deals with the train station.  The operations shown at this very crowded (and a lot more modern) train station can be easily juxtaposed with the crowded train station you see earlier in Alexandria, Egypt.

He watches a rather macabre street performance by a snake handler doing a performance with a cobra and a mongoose.  He walks (very briefly) through a shanty town before ending up in a Hindu religious festival.

He juxtaposes this immediately with a Christian Cathedral (given India’s former status as a British Colony, I’d assume it was an Anglican church, but he doesn’t say), where he studies the memorials to fallen soldiers.

More street scenes (if I were writing a book set in modern-day India, I would watch these several times; as it is, mostly what I saw was crowds of people eating and enjoying himself).

A train trip on a very overcrowded Indian train to Madras.  There aren’t many shots of the inside of the train, but lots of very interesting shots of the scenery it passes by — I would not have thought cactuses grew in the wild in India were it not for some of these train shots.

He has an interview with a fellow passenger, who notes that different regions of India were almost like different countries, with different spoken languages, cuisines, and culture.  “You probably shouldn’t speak Hindi in Madras,” she warned.  The English language (leftover from their time as a British colony) may very well be the only thing unifying Northern and Southern India, she says.

Dining on the train is discussed (and demonstrated), as food is purchased when the train makes a brief stop along the route.  He notices the difference in food between Bombas and Madras, talking about how the food is getting spicier the closer he gets to the later city.

Arriving in the city, he goes on a dangerous bike-rickshaw ride to his hotel across a highway shared with bicycles, pedestrians, oxcarts, and fast-moving cars.

After checking in, he tries once more (with more street scenes interspersed) to make the arrangements for the next stage, to Singapore.  He runs into a problem with insurance certification, as the ship he wants to go on is only certified to carry 18 people, and it already has a crew of 18.  He tries to make alternative arrangements while the travel company desperately tries to contact the insurer (Lloyd’s of London) to get a waiver.  These alternate arrangements are worse than useless, and the waiver is not allowed, so they have to make a Yugoslav-German-BBC-Cyprus-India international agreement (the captain was Yugoslav, the shipping line was run out of Germany, but the ship itself was owned by someone in Cyprus) to allow him and some of his film crew onto the ship in exchange for flying some of the ship’s crew ahead to Singapore.

As part of the agreement, Michael has to actually work as a deckhand (they show him “swabbing the deck” and painting some of the structure, at least) and as his own sound man for the filming.  They arrive in Singapore knowing he’s about to miss his connecting ship, which would end any hope of completing the journey in time.

Episode V:

You see darkened streets of Singapore as he rushes from launch to van (reuniting with the film crew) to another launch which motors him out four miles into the sea so he can get on board another cargo ship traveling to Hong Kong.  Here he makes up a little time on Phileas Fogg, but he’s still behind.

While he’s not on this ship for very long, having his film crew with him allows him to interview the captain of this container ship and his wife, where it’s pointed out that the ship needs miles of space for both acceleration and deceleration, and how much the Captains of such ships have become less concerned with running day-to-day operations as they are managing the finances.

He arrives in Hong Kong noting that he narrowly avoided two seperate disasters — one of the worst typhoons of the year, and a horrifying incident where a container exploded in the port.

In Hong Kong, instead of typhoons or container explosions, he’s surprised by a limo with champagne service and a drive to a nice luxury hotel (a real 5 star hotel, which gives him a little bit of a odd feeling after several days of sleeping on trains and container ships.

He’s invited to a celebration of reaching the half-way point on his trip, but it’s black tie.  He goes to a Hong Kong tailor who has an international reputation, which has had customers like David Bowie, Henry Kissinger, George Michael, and several other celebrities and politicians from around the world.

While waiting for the suit to be made, he goes to a street gathering of bird owners, where people walk their birds so they can socialize with other birds.  I would never have known there was such a thing in real life, had I not seen it on this show.

A trip to a horse race (the biggest game in town) and he wins a small bet.  The cashier at the racecourse recognizes him, and laughs through the entire transaction.  The next day, he goes to visit an old friend (Basil Pao), who will be his translator and travel companion in China, and later ends up his primary photographer for the next several trips.  Basil turns out to also be the father of Michael’s godson.  They do the math and figure out the baby was born at roughly the same time the journey began.

Basil brings up the point that traveling through China will be difficult, in part, because the local dialects are such that people just 30 kms apart from one another can’t understand each other, even though the written dialect is the same everywhere.

Before departing Hong Kong, he finally attends that party (having picked up his much talked about suit off-camera), where they discuss the then-upcoming reunion of Hong Kong and China, which was still several years away at the time this was filmed.

Passing through customs from Hong Kong to China is very quick — one of the faster border crossings he’s managed — and then he’s in another hotel with very westernized luxury (though with touristy-Chinese artistic stylings).

Before continuing on his journey, he decides to try a rather unique restaurant which only serves dishes made from a particular exotic meat — snake.  It’s a rather disturbing scene, and one which I’ve fast-forwarded through, but the way the restaurant handles and cooks the snakes could be used as interesting background color in a novel.

He gets on a Chinese train (you could make a case study on the differences in different countries and regions’ train conditions just by watching these travelogues), which — he notes — “even in China” has three different classes of passengers.  His “soft” class (the highest class) includes comfortable cabins, excellent food (the best he’s ever had on a train, at least at filming), board games, and a lamp that looks like a fortune teller’s crystal ball.

Most of his fellow passengers in “Soft Class” are from Taiwan — this was in the first year that Taiwanese people were allowed to return to China since the Maoist takeover.  Some of his observations are humorous, but you do have to wonder if there’s truth in them (such as the train’s staff member whose only job seems to be mopping the train’s carpeted floor).  And the train, for the first time on his journey, is on-time, ending the episode.

Episode VI:

Episode VI opens in Shanghai, with a history lesson of the town (noting that the port was mostly built to support the European opium trade, which gave portions of the town a very European architecture.  But only part of it; he goes to an apothecary shop which is very Chinese in style in design).  He purchases some Chinese medicinal energy formulae.

He laments not seeing much of China as he boards a ship traveling to Japan.  Having watched most of his travelogues, I know he will return several times, and see many sights that will never be seen again.

This ship is not a container vessel, but a cruise ship… which  he notes is barely occupied by passengers.  Exploring the ship, he finds a full of futon (the real, traditional style variety, not the nicely cushioned foldaway chairs that you find in the United States) but no other passengers.

He arrives in Yokohama, and promptly takes one of Japans famous bullet trains to Tokyo to meet a shipping agent and negotiate passage on a container ship.

His time in Tokyo, waiting for the ship to be ready, is spent using a BBC reporter as his guide.  He has conveyer-belt sushi, describes Japanese society as a “cultural magpie,” and then participates in some Karaoke.  He goes to a Capsule Hotel, which has a variety of wierd rules and odd television programs.  It’s an interesting interpretation of Japanese culture through his eyes (from my experience, this is just one side of many of Japanese culture, and not an especially flattering one.  I think he finds the experience a little lacking, as well, and returns to Japan in more than one other travelogue)

Afterwards, he boards the container ship, which will be one of the longest (travel-time) stretches of his journey, expending eleven days time.  Much as you could make a comparitive study of train travel from this travelogue, you could make a comparitive study of container ships as well (including another ship’s captain being interviewed about life on the sea).

There’s lots of bad weather, a drunken birthday party, a “celebration” of crossing the International Date Line (a rather psuedo-pagan initiation ceremony and unusual togas made from various nationality’s flags and a rather horrible drink cocktail), and many other attempts to end the boredom of this part of the trip.  He says he’s not sure he’ll ever cross the international dateline again… but, as we’ll see with some of his other journeys, that isn’t true.

And there the episode ends.

Episode VII:

The final episode of this set starts in California.  Michael stays at a hotel built from a permanently landlocked British cruise ship, the Queen Mary.  There’s some fun-looking street theater shown and the like, but he mostly just buzzes right through California to get on board an Amtrack sleeper-car train (yet another comparison point for train travel).

He interviews a few of his fellow passengers (including a professional clown) and crew.  There’s a brief layover in Colorado, where we see hot springs, skiing, a hot air balloon, and a dog-sled team.  Then to Chicago, where he has a near-miss of the final bit of train travel, and so on.  Compared to the first half of the trip around the world, however (okay, technically they passed the half-way point in Episode 6, but the bulk of the second half of the trip around the world is in this episode) there aren’t as many “side trips” focused on, and those that do take place don’t seem to get quite as much focus as the ones in other parts of the series. On the other hand, they have a lot of scenery, a few interesting bits of street entertainment briefly shown, etc.

It may be the film crew just wasn’t as interested in the US, or it may be that they were simply running out of steam, or budget, or something, but this final episode — at least as far as “research project” material is concerned — is a little bare.  It does get him all the way back to England, and he successfully completes the journey in 80 days… barely matching Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg.  And then they spend about as much time on his return home as they do in America.


Okay, so the above seems more like a dry re-telling of the events in the series instead of proper research, but that’s only a first step. It might sound tedious to do this for everything you ever watch (or at least everything you own on DVD), but when you find something as full of information as these travelogue series it can be worth it.

I have a character in one of my series who is blind — suppose I wanted to have her shave the beard off her husband (a scene that nearly happened in In Forgery Divided, but it never quite materialized).  Well, I can use these notes to locate exactly where to go to find a scene where a blind man works as a barber; I can watch that scene, and I should be able to replicate it (with the differences needed by the story for both plot purposes and to indicate the relationship between shaver and shavee).

I have two different ongoing fantasy series set in a period before modern medicine, and I’m constantly looking for viable folk remedies which “good” doctors with that background might have used.  Well, there was a folk-remedy treatment (which seemed to work) for sour stomaches on a ship that, thanks to these notes, I know I can find in Episode III.

I could go on.  The point is that this is good research material, and these notes have helped me create an “index,” of sorts, for that research.  It’s a wonderful series — Michael Palin’s wit, the stunning cinematography, and even the tension felt as they try to make it to each successive stage of the journey are all as entertaining the tenth or eleventh time you’ve watched these videos as the first.  Yet, as I’ve shown, it’s still research.

Incidentally, you might want to remember that (in the United States, at least) writers (and artists; there’s plenty of good research material for artists, too) can take the money spent acquiring research materials off on their taxes (disclaimer: I am not a tax advisor, so check your local statutes).  So, you might want to go ahead and purchase your own copy of Around the World in 80 Days — and the other Michael Palin travelogues — today.

Jury Duty! (And Some News on the Print Edition)

I was scheduled for Jury Duty this last Thursday. I didn’t think much of it, as I’ve been summoned for Jury Duty five times in 12 years (You aren’t supposed to be scheduled less than 3 years apart, so somewhere along the line I was summoned when I wasn’t eligible) but never had to report in person — a phone call the night before has always been enough to “fulfill my commitment” before. But I had to, this week, and that  took away a couple days I needed for my planned blog post for this weekend.  I do have some news, however.

Despite the jury duty issue, I was able to get in some work on the Print Edition of In Forgery Divided.  I made a few more tweaks to further lighten the cover, and I discovered a small section in the book block that I must have accidentally skipped my first trip through (again, these are all purely book-design issues; they aren’t even typos — the only problems I’ve found this round were where the kerning needed some very slight adjustments).

I’m uploading the corrected files tonight, and if there aren’t any problems then I MIGHT decide to skip the “order a new proof” step and print it after all.  I don’t know — I was burned trying that once — but I can’t think of anything I’m changing which would cause any unexpected problems.  (Then again, if I could think of something, it wouldn’t exactly be an “unexpected” problem, would it?)

I have something close to 24 hours to decide (from past experience, it takes roughly that long for Createspace to approve any files).  If you’ve got an opinion on this, you’ve got about that long to tell me.

So, there’s that.  Meanwhile, the more interesting post I had planned involving research, a travelogue done by a Monty Python alum, and more will be coming out next weekend… barring some other crisis, at least.

Lessons Learned From Ravencon

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, here is everything (new) I learned from the panels and workshops at Ravencon. Before we begin, however, a little bit about how I’m going to do this:

Some of the “lessons learned” weren’t in things anyone said, but were more conclusions drawn by putting a little of what person A said, a little of what person B said, and my own experiences together, which might make it hard to properly attribute.  Besides, I didn’t properly attribute everything in my notes (hey, I couldn’t even remember who some of the speakers WERE without a program book, and I would have lost valuable information looking them up). So… sorry, but I’m not going to identify just which panel or panelist inspired these “lessons.”  Still, I’d recommend reading my Ravencon Recap to get a list of the panelists from whom these lessons were derived.

I.  On Marketing

A lot of the things that I heard from this convention on marketing were things I already knew, but maybe haven’t thought to mention on this blog before.

For example, an emphasis was made on doing things in what I would call the “set-up phase” of getting your eBook ready.  By this I mean things like making sure you add the right keywords to get in the most categories on Amazon and making sure you set up your Author Central page on Amazon (the guest who said this pointed out that he’d checked the author pages for the guests at Ravencon, and roughly two thirds of the authors attending had never filled out this page.  This is something to do even if you’re trad-pubbed, guys!).

One thing I did not know about this involved the keywords.  I knew you could get your ebook into more Amazon categories with the right keywords in the KDP set-up process, but I didn’t know that worked with Createspace as well, and you could use the keywords with your Createspace books to get you into even more categories.

I also didn’t know how many categories you could get a single book into — one of the panelists pointed out that he had his book in over fifteen different categories on Amazon.

I will note that the panelist who gave this example said the keywords you need to get into specific niche categories were listed on Amazon, but I don’t think that’s a complete listing — at any rate, I’m still not sure what specific keyword got The Kitsune Stratagem into the Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Myths & Legends > Asian category.

Another phrase I heard that I already knew (and recent experience says is pretty true) is that the best marketing you can do for Book I is to release Book II.  Now, I also know it’s kind of hard to do that if you haven’t written Book II, yet, so I was hoping for a little more advice on what to do in the interim.

Several panelists emphasized keeping up with your social media — your Facebook feed, your Twitter page, your home page, your blog (heh).  You need to be sure to not just spam your followers with “Buy my book!” type posts, but rather try to engage them with interesting posts on whatever subject matter you can — politics, cats, the paranormal, etc., and anything else that might interest the people you’re marketing to.

Blogging about writing and publishing isn’t enough (again, something I knew, but I couldn’t think of what else to focus this blog around), because then you’re marketing to other writers.  I came to the conclusion I’m just too boring for social media marketing, as most of the posts I have are either on writing or are “buy my book” type posts.  I don’t want to talk about politics, I have no interest in the paranormal, and I don’t have any cats.  And even if I did have cats, I’m too lousy of a photography to take funny pictures of them, as my pictures from the first Ravencon recap likely demonstrate.  What can you do?  I apologize to my fans for boring you all.  Sorry.

Several panelists discussed the boost (or lack thereof) in sales that giving your book away or offering some books for free can give you.  A lot of things were said, but I think the point that newer authors shouldn’t go this route (it’s entirely ineffective if you don’t have much of anything for people who liked the free book to buy when they’re done) is a good one.  On the other hand, if you have a long series, making the first book free can help… though even this is of limited worth, especially considering how long a series has been out.

One suggestion regarding the free book path that I thought made a lot of sense, though, is — instead of making the first book free — you release an entirely new prequel book that you make free, with the hope the readers of that book will move on to the completed series.  That way, you get both the “new release” buzz and the “free book” buzz.

I also heard a call for joining professional organizations, because they can offer networking opportunities and marketing opportunities you just won’t find anywhere else.  Also, for some of these organizations, being eligible to join is proof you can show to the outside world that you’ve sold a certain number of books.

I’m a bit dubious of joining the SFWA, though if I did join one it would be that one.  Once they opened the doors to self-publishers who could demonstrate certain sales figures, I was eligible through the sales of “In Treachery Forged” (and In Forgery Divided, while selling at a rate a little slower than its predecessor, should cross that same threshold this month, barring a very sudden and dramatic decline in the sales).

I’m still thinking about it.  While I’m dubious about whether such an organization has any value to self-publishers, outside of the “proof my books sell” label, there were a few pilot programs mentioned that sound like they might be useful.  Things like a program to help people who use crowdfunding platforms when launching their books.

If any of my readers are current SFWA members, contact me — I have a few questions that the “Ask SFWA” panel didn’t sound willing to answer.

One self-published writer noted that being a guest at a convention was good promotion for their book, as well (something I’ve long suspected, but had no proof of).   She said that sales for her books jumped higher than they ever had, before, once she was announced as a guest at Ravencon.  Well, I’ve started applying to be a guest at several conventions (though, as I said before, I was too late for this year’s Ravencon, or really any 2016 conventions), so hopefully I’ll be able to tell you how true this is soon.

There was some talk about “swag.”  In this case, swag refers to bookmarks, postcards, and that kind of thing, which can be given away at conventions (like Ravencon) and bookstores as promotional material.  Now I’ve heard from other sources that bookmarks and postcards are increasingly useless, with so many authors trying to be discovered using them that they appear to be nothing more than litter.

However, some forms of re-usable swag (t-shirts, tote bags, tumblers, that sort of thing) can still be good advertising, if done right — giving them away for free (or even charging for them, if you can find buyers) may target only one customer, but then everyone who wears those T-shirts or carries those tote bags displays the logo, website address, book cover, etc., just like a billboard.

Providing enough free t-shirts or tote bags for an entire convention would get pretty expensive (Ravencon requires a minimum of 600 copies of an item to include it in their swag bag.  At $14.14 per t-shirt (drawn from the bulk pricing estimate at Cafepress; you might find it cheaper elsewhere, but it’s a good enough number for this estimate) that’s well over $8000), but having a few made to give away at an event like a book signing, or offering some branded gear for sale on your website, can be worth a little expense.  (Whether you make back your money from that level of advertising is another question, but it does work)

Another interesting piece of “swag” was a small excerpt, eleven pages long, of J.T. Bock’s The Grandfather Paradox.  It’s something that might have been made by your local Kinko’s or UPS Store, or even by the author herself using a laser printer and a long-arm stapler.  The last page of this chapbook has the text “Find out what happens next!  Get a FREE ebook of A Grandfather Paradox short story.  Go to and sign up for the ezine.”  I don’t know how many sales this has generated for the author, but this is something that someone would be far more likely to pay attention to than a simple bookmark, and if you can keep the costs down by DIYing it, you might find it cheaper than purchasing a set of bookmarks.

Another thing that was discussed was cross-promotion.  By this, I mean having several authors work jointly to market their books to each others fanbases.  In my earlier Self-Publishing Roundtable post on marketing, I did discuss the theory of this type of promotion as one of the more effective (in concept, at least).  In that article, I mostly was considering the idea of anthologies, but that was the limit to what I really thought of.  At Ravencon, the idea of sharing your backmatter advertising space with other indie authors (some above you in the genre rankings, others below you, all providing quid-pro-quo for the other authors) was proposed.  It sounds intriguing enough I might just try it, next time.

Finally, there were several mentions of getting reviews out for your book.  Enough points were raised it deserves a topic of its own.

II.  On Reviews

“The hardest thing to do in publishing is getting people to review.”  (Since that’s a direct quote, I’ll note that it was Chris Kennedy who said that line).  In my experience, this is true — in terms of “natural” (unsolicited) reviews, it seems less than 0.75% of the people who purchase my books review them (it used to be 1%, but the older my books have gotten the smaller that percentage has become).  When it comes to solicited reviews, I gave away signed several signed print copies of The Kitsune Stratagem in exchange for a promise that the people getting them would give me a honest review in exchange.  Less than 25% of the people who took this offer actually provided a review of any kind.

So, I went to the conference hunting for suggestions on how to get more customer reviews.  I’m not so sure I heard anything I hadn’t tried, before (at least, not that I currently have the connections and\or other resources to try) but I did hear a few other things about reviews which either add to or contradict what I’ve heard before.

To begin with, I heard that the fantasy genre (which all of my currently published books are in) is one of the hardest to get reviews in.  I didn’t hear any explanation as to why that might be, but it seems to agree with the reality I’ve heard from authors in other genre.

Fortunately, reviews aren’t quite as important as I originally believed.  Amazon’s algorithms (Amazon has several algorithms that help an author sell something; some are used to determine sales rank, others to determine your book’s also-bot mentions, others are used to determine how much free promotion they provide, others are used to determine where your book appears in Amazon’s search engine relative to other books with a similar title… and there are probably others as well) are not as reliant on the number of reviews as much as they are by how they’re weighted.  Reviews are weighted based on how many people vote a review as being useful (or not useful), how old the review is, whether a review comes from a verified purchaser or not, and so forth.

In other words, even if you don’t write reviews, it can help support the writer to click “this review is helpful” on positive reviews.

Where the number of reviews is still important is in getting into promotional websites.  Bookbub (while it doesn’t say so on its website) and Pixel of Ink, generally regarded as the two most effective promotional websites, won’t accept your book for promotion until you get at least 20 reviews.   Ereadernewstoday has a minimum of 10.   Book Blast requires 5.  These are but a few examples where the quantity is more important than the quality of the reviews you get.

While the discussion did not come up at Ravencon, a few things said by the panelists have me looking more into the value of editorial reviews.  Editorial reviews do not get submitted to Amazon in the same way as customer reviews; they are solicited, and even “best practice” includes a fee for the service (paid for either by the author, in self-publishing, or the publisher, for some trad-pub.  I’ve heard that the prices are cheaper for trad-pub, but I can’t be sure about that).  These are the sorts of reviews journals that libraries and other bookstores look at when deciding whether to buy your book. You pay them, they write a review, and you can include a quote or two in a special section (at Amazon’s Author Central, they have a section for entering these called, curiously enough, “Editorial Reviews.”  This section is even open for trad-pub authors to add such reviews.)

Createspace offers one such editorial review service, itself, but it’s far too expensive (Kirkus; as I once mentioned in a past blog post, this is a once quite reputable review journal that went bankrupt and was bought out, and now makes its money by gouging authors for such reviews, though they do seem to be maintaining their good reputation when they deal with trad-pub).  There may be better such services, however; after hearing a few writers talk about this, I’m thinking of experimenting with one or two I know of.  If I do (still a big if), I’ll get back to you on how effective they seem to be.

III.  Story Ideas

Of course, there was more to the convention than lessons for self-publishing.

I’ve decided I need a mascot.  Too many authors have started carrying around there own mascots (dragons, treecats, buffalitos, etc.), and I have too many potential mascots in my own books (foxes, dragons, and other creatures) to ignore this trend.

An intriguing discussion of “sciences not used in science fiction” (which was really “well, everything has been done at least once, but these are far less common sciences featured in science fiction”) gave me an idea for an anthology or collection of stories featuring, well, sciences not commonly featured in the harder forms of science fiction.  Library sciences, linguistics, historians, anthropologists, geologists, meteorologists (in a non-climatological sense; there’s been a recent spate of “Cli-Fi” (Climatologically-messaged science fiction) which has become more common, but other aspects of a meteorologist’s job are still largely ignored), etc.

A tip for con-goers:  Even if you plan to do all of your dining in the hotel restaurant, bring along at least one meal you can safely store in your room that’s grab-and-go.  Even if it’s just the fixings for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  That way, if you get talked into going to a panel that takes over the window of time you scheduled for yourself to get your dinner, you’re less likely to miss another panel you want to attend to make up for it.  I usually bring drinks and snacks, but I REALLY could have used a sandwich that Saturday night.

And I’ll conclude with one more tip for the con-goer:  If you’re going to take notes on the panels you attend, it’s so much easier to keep them on your laptop than to try and type them on your iPod or tablet device.  And those notes can be really helpful when you’re trying to write your blog on the lessons you learned at the convention.  And it’s really a good idea to remember to take that laptop with you… even on the first day of the convention.  (Oops)

Planned Future Articles for this Blog

Please note: The bulk of this post was written prior to my attending Ravencon, last weekend. If I’d successfully figured out my blog software well enough (I’ve been doing this over a year now, and I’m still a complete newbie. I keep trying to figure out how to disable the horrid auto-hyphenation that this theme enforces, for example, but have had no success), it would have auto-posted last Sunday. Instead, I’m just going to tweak the post a bit and send it out today.

So, before I started ramping up the publicity machine in the advent of In Forgery Divided‘s release, I had several ongoing blog series I was pursuing.  I hope to resume some of them, soon, including:

I.  The Self-Publishing Roundtable

The bulk of this series is complete, but I’m still coming up with new addendums for it.  Some of the things I learn at Ravencon may inspire articles for this.

II.  Wierd Things I’ve Had to Research

Honestly, I’d like to resume this one the most.  However, looking back over the articles I have already written, I’m a bit disappointed in myself.  Among other things, it seems like I’m doing a lot of linking to Wikipedia.  I don’t hate Wikipedia, and think it is a perfectly fine research tool if you double-check its references and understand its limitations, but this wasn’t supposed to be a survey course on using Wikipedia.  I will have to think of new ways to approach this series, but I do have at least one thing to start with: Using travelogues for research.  And the travelogue I’ll use will be the Michael Palin travelogues — Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, Full Circle, and Himalaya.  I may start these in a couple weeks.

III.  This Book Cannot Make Any Money

For newcomers, this was a bit of a project taking otherwise useless scraps of writing I had done (a few fragments of poetry, much of it from my High School days; a single very short (but still too long to be listed as flash) short story set in genre (experimental, paranormal) that I have written nothing else in; a fantasy short story written entirely as an inside joke for a writing workshop; story fragments of various genre from permanently abandoned larger works; that kind of thing) and to use it to walk people through the self-publishing process on a budget of $0, eventually releasing is as an eclectic collection of stories through both Amazon and Createspace.  This project froze because I didn’t have time to finish the article on cover art while also completing the final details for In Forgery Divided.  It will resume the next time I’ve sent something off to an editor and I’m waiting for them to get back to me.

IV.  Convention Calender Listings

I’ve neglected this part of the website for too long.  I plan to update these at the end of this month.  I think I’ve covered most of the major fan-run conventions, but I know I don’t know about some of the more obscure smaller conventions, one or two-day conventions, and new conventions.  If anyone knows of conventions I’ve missed, please let me know.

V.  Reviewing Software for the Self-Publisher

This was a proposed series in a past blog article.  There didn’t appear to be any interest (while I never seem to be able to convince anyone but spammers to comment on my blogs here, I often get comments on my articles in private messages, Facebook comments, Twitter comments, real life, etc.  This proposed series generated none of those, however), and so has been abandoned.  Unless there’s someone particularly interested in it, now?

VI.  Getting the Print Edition Out, And Future Publishing Plans

While In Forgery Divided has been out for over a month now in eBook form, I’m still working on getting the print edition complete.  I’ve just ordered a proof on a corrected copy, so I’ll probably have a blog post announcing the completion of that.  Also, I intend to have another status report-type post some time in the next few weeks where I discuss which books I’m going to be focusing on for the near future, which books will be put on the backburner for a while (but not abandoned), and which planned books I’m going to be dropping entirely.  Also, I’ll be discussing a few plans for some experimentation in my marketing strategies, the difference between a short story collection and an anthology (as I’m planning for one or the other to be added to one or both of my two currently ongoing Fantasy series, plus a third Sci-Fi set that I thought of at Ravencon), and more.

VII.  Lessons Learned From Ravencon

This will be coming out next Sunday, and will feature everything I’ve gleaned from my notes on the various Ravencon panels I attended.  Not all of the things I learned were explicity said by the panelists, however, and not all the  panels were useful (hint: If you don’t know that Ingram Spark and Lightning Source are the same company, or you think you have to pay Createspace for expanded distribution, or you think Smashwords regularly distributes to Amazon, your information is old\incorrect and you shouldn’t be on a panel about self-publishing.  I’m not going to be shaming any of the panelists, but some of the things being said (especially things that went uncorrected by the other panelists) has me questioning the expertise of some of the panelists.  At least no-one recommended Author Solutions, which I suppose is a good thing).  So I won’t necessarily break down the things learned to the various panels I attended.

Ravencon 2016 Recap

So, I’m back from Ravencon this year. It was utterly exhausting. I enjoyed myself quite a lot, met a lot of interesting people, learned a few things, and made it home safe.  Here’s a recap of how things went:


I drove from my home in Ashburn, Va down to Williamsburg — normally a 2½ hour drive.  My GPS said it would be 2½ hours.  It wound up taking considerably longer.

First, my GPS decided to send me on a stressful detour through the side streets of another town a half-hour away before getting me onto the highway.  This was completely unneccesary, and I still haven’t figured out why it did this.

Now, I was listening to the radio as I drove; sports radio (this sports station was the only remotely acceptable radio station I’d be able to listen to for most of the trip) broadcasting out of a sports bar ten minutes away from my home.  Just as the broadcast was going to a commercial break, one of the broadcasters gave the startled shout of “Was that an earthquake?” (Commercial starts seconds later).

Um… what?  I waited until I was stopped at a stoplight and called my mother, who lives in that area, and asked if she’d had an earthquake.  She said it certainly seemed like it, as the house had rumbled and was shaking.  (As it turns out, the USGS did NOT record an Earthquake in our area.  We have talked it out, investigated local news reports, etc., and still don’t know what happened, but it was something that resembled an Earthquake hit the local area).

Then I landed in stop-and-go traffic.  This was unusual because, even though it was Friday, I had timed the start of my trip to avoid the worst of the traffic (evening, rush hour, even on a Friday, usually starts mid-afternoon; I picked a time before then, but after the morning rush hour was supposed to have ended.  I passed no obvious accidents or construction delays; things were just… slow).

But finally I passed that onto a different stretch of the highway (Interstate 95, if you were curious).  I was in a 70 mph zone (in light traffic), and there was a little spout of rain.  I started my windshield wipers.  These were brand new windshield wipers, installed by my mechanic just days before the convention, and it was doing a great job… at first.  But, about at the midway point between home and the convention, one of the wiper blades popped off.  It sounded like glass breaking (it didn’t; I checked), and then started flopping around and banging on the windshield, still hooked on by a corner.  Startling, and a bit scary, but I was eventually able to pull off to the side of the road and re-connect the wiper blade (as cars buzzed by me on the highway at roughly 80mph).  After that, while I was a bit rattled, it was smooth sailing to the convention.   And I was only an hour later arriving than the GPS said I should be.


This hotel, the Williamsburg Doubletree, is the newest home for both Marscon and Ravencon.  I wasn’t able to attend Marscon this year (I was struggling to get In Forgery Divided out at the time), so this was my first experience with this hotel.

First impression is that it’s huge, but the layout is a little confusing.  Now, once you get used to it, it makes some sense — there is one convention space wing, which starts with a big ballroom (which, in this case, was being used as the dealer room) and, if you go down a ramp, two additional floors of convention space.  On the bottom floor, you have a pair of auditoriums and various meeting rooms listed by number.  On the top floor, you have more meeting rooms listed by letter.  The confusion is partly caused by the hotel;s signs, which seemed to be saying the rooms listed by number and the rooms listed by letter were on the same floor.  And there were some rooms the signs wouldn’t direct to at all.  And… well, basically, I’m not sure what was going on with them, but they were wrong.

The facilities were in pretty good shape.  I had a slightly crooked bathroom door in my suite, which made it difficult to close, but everything else was far better maintenance-wise than past hotels for these two conventions.  The amenities were nice, and they have a much better brand of coffee and tea than you usually find in hotels.  So, overall, a good location for a convention.

Dining was an issue, however.  They must have been understaffed, because they had the restaurant closed and were feeding people only from the bar.  However, the bar never seemed to have enough workers to satisfy all the customers — they had one waitress, one bartender, one cleaning person, and one person running the orders from the kitchen to the bar and back.  The food was good, but horribly overpriced (more overpriced than it was at either of the two conventions’ previous hotels; I’d budgeted for dining to be comparable to those two, but I wound up spending almost double and wasn’t ordering as much), and service was slow — you had to block out at least an hour and a half, sometimes two hours, if you wanted to be able to eat the meal you ordered.  Room service was even slower (my food arrived cold after I waited nearly an hour and a half for it) and more expensive (they added service and delivery charges, and expected you to tip over that).

There was a dining option — the convention had arranged for a relatively inexpensive “grab and go” menu to be serviced by the hotel.  $4 would get you a burger, $3 for a hot dog, etc.  This food was horrible; the burgers were like sawdust, and I never knew you could make a tasteless hot dog before this.  And even if you were desperate enough to buy these, they weren’t always in stock when they should have been; I tried grabbing these grab and go “meals” four times during the convention, and it was only on Sunday that I found any in the warming trays.

Okay, that was a long rant about the dining, but overall I thought it was a fine hotel.  Lots of convention space, the rooms were great, the amenities were satisfactory, etc.  I’d gladly stay there, again (though I’d bring some of my own food from home)


Despite all the delays, I made it to the hotel in plenty of time to register (I normally pre-register, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to go until it was too late) and attend the earliest of the programming.  I was focusing on attending panels and workshops which were on writing, self-publishing, and marketing.

So, I started with a panel called “Designing a Cover For Your Self-Published Book,” presented by Chris Kennedy.  Now, I plan to have a seperate post on “Lessons Learned From Ravencon,” so I won’t go into too many details about what I learned from this panel here.  I will say this was a fairly informative panel, but most of what was said was information I already knew.

I was hoping to see Allen Wold during the convention.  He runs a fun and interesting set of writing workshops at several conventions across the East Coast, and worked with me one-on-one to help me with some techniques in self-editing.  I haven’t seen much from him on social media in a while, however, because he’s recently had cataract surgery on both eyes.  Scheduling issues prevented me from attending any of his workshops or readings this convention, but I’d hoped to at least have a chat and see how he was doing.  I never got a chance to talk with him, however — whenever I saw him (and my first chance was right after that last panel) he was always rushing off to do something (in this case, to run his plotting workshop).  I got to wave and say “hi” a few times, but I didn’t really need to ask — I was happy to see him looking hale and hearty following his eye surgery.

The next panel I went to was “Marketing and Branding for Authors,” featuring Baine Kelly, Gail Z. Martin, Alex Matsuo, and Michael A. Ventrella.

I won’t say I learned nothing from this panel, but I did (perhaps) come to the conclusion I’m just too boring for social media marketing.

I don’t have a cat to take silly pictures of, I don’t have a second career worth talking about, and my everyday life is mostly just spent sitting in the basement, writing.  (Or, well, trying to write, at any rate).  I don’t take very good pictures (something you’ll probably notice when you get to the pictures I started taking when I remembered that, oh, yeah, my iPod has a camera).  I cook many of my family dinners, but my style of cuisine is more sloppy-chic than photogenic and I don’t really have that many good recipes.  In other words, the panel advised “talk about something other than your writing,” and the only things I ever seem to be able to talk about is my writing.

(At least I know not to spam “Buy my books” to you all, all the time)

After that was dinner (and my first experience with how slow the restaurant was), and then more panels.  I’m not going to say too much about the next couple I attended save to say I was a bit disappointed by them.  While I was interested in the subject matter, they weren’t especially helpful, and I was starting to wonder if I would get anything out of this convention, after all.

But then I made it to my first ever Eye of Argon reading, and while I didn’t learn much of anything, this was worth the price of admission in and of itself.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Eye of Argon was a horribly-written story published originally in a low-end fanzine in the 1970s that has since been turned into something of a convention party game.  The idea is to read it (in its original form, including pronouncing the words as they are misspelled rather than how they would be if properly spelled) without making mistakes or breaking down laughing.  Not many can achieve this feat.  There is an evolving set of forfiets if you make a mistake (this time, you would have to stop and act out the scenes that were read by the next player) and a small reward for participating.

In a way that just seems totally appropriate for a celebration of such a mistake-ridden piece of fiction, things went wrong before the game even began.  The quick-reference grid guide, the programming guide, the pocket program, and the signs indicating the programming in each room disagreed about where the reading was supposed to take place.  So, if you wanted to go, you had to guess whether it would be in the Small Auditorium, the Large Auditorium, Room E, or… well, I don’t have copies of the room signs to look up where they were directing people.

But people eventually did find it (including the guests who were supposed to be hosting the panel, though two of them were late), and the reading began.  So, with a multi-fauceted scarlet emerald, a knife forced from a rat pelvis, and as many incorrect spellings of the word “swivelled” as you can imagine, we delved into the epic tale of Grignr the Ecordian.

An attempt at reading it can be found here, just to give you an idea, but it really is an event that must be experienced to get the full idea of how ridiculous it can be.  The guests\panelists involved in this reading were particularly experienced (and still bungled their readings on occasion).  This was a dramatic reading, and I really have to say Gray Rinehart really hit it out of the park.  Other guests included Michael A. Ventrella, Gail Z. Martin, and (as judge) Peter Prellwitz.

And so, with a heart lightened after hearing of that mighty quest, I returned to my suite and rested for the long night.


Okay, I think I have the Eye of Argon out of my system.  Friday was a bit of a weak start, but I really learned a lot from the Saturday panels.  And I remembered I had a camera on my iPod, so there’s that, too.

I started the day with a panel called “Self-Publishing Doesn’t Mean Solo Publishing,” presented by Doc Coleman, GB Macrae, Alex Matsuo, and Christine McDonnell.

Okay, I’ve decided at this point, since I’m not actually saying what I heard from these panels, I’m not going to bother mentioning them unless I have a viable picture to go with it, or something more to say than “I went to (such and such a) panel.”  I am not a photographer (an understatement), and a lot of the pictures I tried taking didn’t turn out.

As proof of how bad, I couldn’t even identify the picture I took of the above panel, which I was going to put here instead of this paragraph.  The surviving pictures aren’t especially exciting, but I know that panelists are always happy to see pictures of themselves running a panel, however bad the picture.

I also met briefly one-on-one with Meryl Yourish, who tried to help me work out a problem with WordPress.  (We’ll see if what she said helps the next time I try to schedule a blog post)

That meeting had me a minute or two late to my next panel, Self-Publishing 2.0: Maximizing Your Profits With, presented by Chris Kennedy.


This was a very informative panel, and I took a lot of notes… some of which I will discuss in my upcoming “Things I Learned From Ravencon” post.

Then Lunch (with another Allen Wold “I wish I could have talked to him, but we were both too busy going in opposite directions” sighting).  Slow service killed almost all of my time until the next panel, but I was able to catch a few minutes of one particular event that was taking place right outside of the restaurant:  Splendid Teapot Racing.


(Yes, you can’t make anything out beyond a little bit of a ramp.  I said I wasn’t a photographer, didn’t I?)

The one race I caught was fun while it lasted, though the “teapot” in question (it resembled the classic-series Starship Enterprise) flipped over and crashed exiting the ramp.

Watching the teapot races made me late to my next panel, as well.  That was the Worldbuilding: Creating Fictional Political Systems with Larry Hodges, DJ McGuire (no website or author page I can find), Kate Paulk, and Stephen J. Simmons (moderator).


Unless you want images too blurred to make anything out or a picture of the back of some blue-haired person’s head, I don’t have pictures from my next couple panels (Researching Your Book followed by Worldbuilding: Economics and infrastructure).

I did get a viable picture of the What Sciences Haven’t Been Used panel, featuring Christopher Weuve, Susan Zee (another person who I can’t find a viable website for), an unscheduled (at least according to the program book) appearance by Lou Antonelli, and moderated by Kate Paulk.


This panel was quite interesting — less so for the practical reasons that were discussed, but more for inspirational reasons.  It gave me an idea for a possible short story collection or anthology… but I’ll have to save that idea for a future post.  This blog entry is already getting long, and there’s still a lot to go.

After this panel, Lou Antonelli talked me into delaying my dinner (though in the process, he inspired a craving for a Wendy’s hamburger that I have yet to fulfill) to attend the Ask SFWA: What Do You Do For Writers panel.  There were almost more people on the panel than there were in the audience:  Lou Antonelli, Rob Balder, Jack Clemons, Harry Heckel, Gail Z. Martin, Bishop O’Connell, and Bud Sparhawk.  Here’s a distant, out-of-focus picture of them all:


This actually could have been a very interesting panel.  When the SFWA opened its doors to self-published writers, I was eligible (and I should be eligible again) to become a member.  However, I was a bit reluctant because the SFWA has worked against self-publishers best interests in the past (whatever they claim, they picked the wrong side for most self-publishers, and arguably most authors.  Even the members of the SFWA’s own self-publishing committee were in disagreement with the decision, and committee member MCA Hogarth mentioned in the comments section of the Passive Voice blog that the committee wasn’t even consulted before the decision was made) in the matter of the Amazon-Hachette kerfuffle about two years ago.

I wanted to ask about this incident, and whether steps have been taken to ensure that the SFWA won’t run roughshod over the interests of a portion of its membership (again) in the future, but the moderator had made it clear from the beginning that they weren’t going to take on controversial topics after the topic of the Hugos came up.  I stuck it out for an hour of the (scheduled, though they thought they would end early) two hour panel, but it was mostly an SFWA love-fest and I was starting to get a headache from lack of food.  So, I walked out and went to go eat dinner.

This was the dinner which I tried to get through room-service (hoping that cutting out the fifteen-twenty minutes it took to attract the attention of the waitress and make my order would speed the dinner order) that arrived very late and cold.  Some of it was no longer palatable, but I was so hungry by then that I ate through it anyway.

However, I’d been in a Facebook dialog with Joelle Presby about a cake being delivered to the Baen Barfly room party at 9 that evening (she was promising that the cake wasn’t a lie, and I feigned not being sure if I believed her).  And she posted that the cake arrived.

“Food!” was the only consideration.  I went to my first ever Baen Barfly party.  And yes, there was cake, decorated with Joelle’s latest book cover, and she was quite happy to cut it.


Now, a little bit of history of me and Baen:  Back when the late Jim Baen was alive, and I was polishing my first book for submission to a publisher, I was a member of Baen’s Bar, the forum for Baen Books.  I was a big fan of several of the authors, who were frequently found on the forum.  As the years passed, fewer of the authors showed up on the Bar, Jim passed away, and I went to an all-lurker format (it used to be accessible through a Usenet reader, if you remember usenet, but my usenet-reader was read-only).  That usenet access went away, at one point; I remained a fan of the author (and the publisher), but quit going to the Bar forums.

But I remember hearing about so many interesting discussions and things happening at these Barfly parties.  I’d never been to one, however, for a variety of reasons (usually some combination of scheduling conflicts and just not being able to figure out where the darned thing was), so I was really looking forward to finally making it… but first I had to have my piece of cake, because I was starving.

I had an interesting chat or two while eating the cake, but afterwards… well, I hate to say it, but I fell asleep.  Not because there weren’t interesting discussions going on, but because I was just so horribly drained by the day, by the lack of\late\bad food, etc., etc.  So, while there was still interesting programming later that day, I figured if I fell asleep at the Barfly party I wouldn’t make it through any of the other panels.  I wound up calling it a night, and that was it.


An early night led to an early morning, and I made it to the first panel of the day.  Sadly, I don’t have any photographic evidence of that, but the panel was on Book Covers that Sell Books (my second panel on book covers; this one was less of a “how to make a book cover” and more of a “this is what looks good on a cover and this is what doesn’t”).

I followed that up with “The Economics of Self-Publishing.”  This panel featured Chris Kennedy, Alex Matsuo, and Nancy Northcott.


You could tell that everyone, both audience members and panelists, had been worn down by this panel — one person (not listed) never showed, Nancy Northcot dropped her tablet (I was sitting in the front road and picked it up for her; no damage), and there was a bit of a lazy air to everything.  A lot of this was rehashing of information I already knew, but I think I picked up a tip or two (one reason I’m making the “lessons learned” is that I’ve only got bits and scraps from several panels, and I’m not always sure where I learned what bit that I put in my notes).

I went for lunch after that (FINALLY finding the items from the “Grab ‘N Go Menu” in stock… and discovering that they were the most tasteless burgers and hotdogs I’ve ever tried, even going back to Elementary school).  The convention was almost over… but not quite.  I had one more panel to attend.

That panel was the one on Species Creation: SF vs. Fantasy panel with Bill Blume and Harry Heckel… and we waited a bit for a third panelist who never showed up.  That led to some… interesting conversation.  But first, a picture of the two who did show up.


(Actually, maybe that is three.  But we’ll get into the dragon in a moment)

I’m not sure how much of the subject I took away from this topic.  I remember disagreeing with the panelists on several things.  Not that it matters — it was a fun, and at times utterly hilarious, ending to a really good convention.

Harry Heckel was the first to show up, as he had been on the last panel to use that room (How to Be a Writer With a Day Job).  However, the other two panelists were late.  It was Sunday, the last panel of the con, so he decided to give the other panelists some extra time before starting.

To fill the intervening time, however, Harry Heckel brought up his own “it’s the third day of the convention and we’re all exhausted” tale.  Earlier that day, he was supposed to moderate the aforementioned How to Be a Writer With a Day Job panel.  He had the room wrong, though, and was sitting in the moderators seat for another panel, the Future of Love and Courtship panel.  The other panelists for that panel didn’t say anything to him about it — it was only after someone else in the audience prompted him that he realized he was in the wrong room.

That led to some speculation about what that panel would have been like.  We (both Harry and the audience) speculated that it would have become a mash-up panel of some sort.  “The Future of Love and Courtship With a Day Job.”  “How to Be a Writer With Love and Courtship.”  Etc., etc.

Then Bill Blume showed up, only a minute or two late.  Now, throughout the rest of the convention he’d apparently been accompanied by a stuffed dragon named Windsor (great name for a dragon, btw).  Harry Heckel had his own dragon with him, Magdella (I don’t know if I’m spelling that right, but Magdella wasn’t listed in the program book).

The mention of a “dragon habit” was made (I can’t remember which of them said it first, but both agreed that they had one, collecting stuffed dragons when they could).  Between Windsor, Magdella, and (from conventions past) Barry Mantelo, I’ve come to the conclusion that writers are well-served to have their own mascot.  Or at least I would be… but I’ll decide what that mascot would be later.


And after that, there was a really, really long nap (I crashed at 4pm Sunday and woke up at 9am Monday.  I had to rush packing to get everything packed in my car before check-out time), I drove home in the two and a half hours the trip is supposed to take.

If I had one real criticism of the panels, it was mostly that the self-publishing panels seemed a bit weak on, well, self-publishers.  There were a few (Chris Kennedy, in particular) who really knew their stuff, but many of the self-publishing panelists weren’t actually self-publishers.  By that, I mean they weren’t focusing their writing careers around self-publishing; many of the panelists were trad-published writers who may have self-published one or two short stories and re-published some of their backlist on their own.  There’s nothing wrong with that — getting that perspective can be a good thing, if you have plenty of people from the more ‘self-publishing-centric’ side of the equation — and these people were not bad guests overall, but they weren’t really self-publishing experts.  They didn’t have any real insight on the field of self-publishing.

Again, this wasn’t true of all of the guests on these panels, just a few of them (and I won’t name names, here, because I don’t want to offend anyone, and that’s not the point.  The panelists did the best they could), but it did feel odd that they’d been put on these panels.

I really did enjoy Ravencon a lot, despite the few flaws I had with it.  I just hope I can come back as a guest next year.  (I won’t make the mistake of applying too late to be considered, this time)