The Curators of Culture

Wise and great are the Keepers of the Books, for they provide the People with all the knowledge that we need. There is the Red Book, and there is the Blue Book. The Blue Book tells us how to plant the pobble seeds, and when to pick the pobble fruit, and how to cook the pobble fruit, and the proper manners for spitting out the seeds after the pobble fruit is eaten, so that we will not look like the brute beasts. Also the Blue Book tells us how to harvest the stems of the pobble plant, and how to make them into fibre, and how to weave the fibre to make the grundle cloth, and how to wrap the grundle cloth round our bodies to cover our nakedness in the approved manner. And the Blue Book tells us not to stare at the light, for the light of the sun is too bright to stare at, and it is the only light we need; all other lights are a snare and a delusion. We have one food, one plant, one cloth, and one light; who could want for more? The Red Book, now, the Red Book is a thing of magic. The Red Book contains the Song, and the Poem, and the Exciting Story. It contains an excellent colour plate of the Picture, and a detailed plan from which we can rebuild the Statue if anything ever happens to it. We thought that the plan was needless, because who wants a plan when we already have the Statue? Then one day the Statue was struck by lightning, and we perceived that the Keepers of the Books were wise to make the plan. O great and varied Culture that we enjoy, having all the things that we need, thanks to the Keepers of the Books! Praise be to them. Now I hear that a madman, an infidel, a disturber of the peace, is writing a Yellow Book. What can this be, but evil? For what can there be in the Yellow Book? It cannot be about food, for we already know all about the pobble fruit. It cannot be about clothing, for we already know the grundle cloth. It cannot be about the false lights, for we need only the true light of the sun. Moreover, the Yellow Book cannot have a song, for we already have the Song. If there is a song in the Yellow Book, either it is the same as the Song, or it is different. If it is the same, we do not need it; and if it is different, it is false. For who could sing any song but the Song? Surely it is a great evil that anyone should try to deprive us of the Song, by luring us with false substitutes. Likewise, there cannot be a poem, or an exciting story, or a picture, or a plan for the Statue, for we already have all those things. What can there possibly be in this Yellow Book, but confusion, lies, and destruction? Therefore you must pardon me, while I join the rest of the People. We go now to smash the maker of the Yellow Book with stones, until he is dead. Our Culture must be protected!

‘La libertà di pensiero’ (‘Freedom of Thought’), by Trilussa

Un gatto bianco, ch’era presidente der circolo der libbero pensiero, senti che er gatto nero, libbero pensatore come lui, je faceva la critica riguardo a la politica ch'era contraria a li principi sui. –Giacchè nun badi a li fattacci tui, –je disse er gatto bianco inviperito– rassegnerai le proprie dimissioni e uscirai dalle file der partito: chè qui la poi pensa’ libberamente come te pare a te, ma a condizzione che t’associ a l’idee der presidente e a le proposte della commissione! –E’ vero, ho torto, ho aggito malamente. . . .– rispose er gatto nero. E pe’ resta’ ner libbero pensiero da quella vorta nun penso’ piu’ gnente. —Trilussa
A white cat, who had been made the chair-cat Of an Association for the Freedom of Thought, Got news that a black cat, A member of the same Association, Would criticize his views For he did not agree With the white cat’s political principles. –Since you won’t mind your own bloody business – said the white cat to the black one in a rage – You will resign – out of your own free will – And leave our Party ranks for good: ’cause here you can think freely and as you please So long as you accept the chair-cat’s views And the Political Commitee’s proposals! –It’s true, I’m wrong, what I’ve done wasn’t right . . .– the black cat answered; And to be allowed to remain Freethinker From then on he never thought anything again. [Translation supplied by Fabio Paolo Barbieri]

Bridget McKenna on Shakespeare

I’ve heard his stuff is off-genre, and he can’t even get an agent. One rejection said: “Make up your mind, Will. You can’t be writing thrillers one day and sappy romances the next. Readers want to know what to expect. Pick a genre and stick with it, fergodsake. Then maybe I can do something for you.”

Bridget McKenna

Lord Talon’s Revenge

    A man with no name, no country, no face, has one simple desire: revenge on the tyrant who robbed him of all else. Just a few small obstacles stand in his way. . . . Greed: Sagrendus the Golden, Prince of Dragons, has a good business: abduct princess, collect ransom, repeat until rich. He charges extra for taking sides. War: General Griffin, ogre mercenary, always fights for his client — even if there is nobody to fight against. Hatred: Princess Jacinth hates the man she will have to marry — whoever he is. She also hates kings, rescuers, men, women, and especially porcelain dolls. Betrayal: What keeps King Talvos on the throne of Ilberion? He’s better at double-crossing than anyone who double-crosses him. And then there is one young fool with a sword, who still believes in heroes. Revenge is about to get a lot more complicated.
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Chapter 1: How a Father sent forth his Son

  lord-talon-coverTrianon Barr, like most fools, had the best of intentions. As a boy he sat by the fire in the hall of his father’s castle, away in the forgotten Kingdom of Lúmond, and listened to old tales. It was a rare night that some wandering bard did not sing for his supper at Castle Barr, playing airs on his harp before the lord’s table, or singing the ribald songs that delighted the rough knights of his household. But when the lord and his knights had retired, drunken and gorged, Trianon and his six brothers would beg the bard for tales of adventure and chivalry, and they would stay under the spell of his voice far into the night. So Trianon heard all the ancient lays that his elders never asked for, though they were the bard’s true psalter and treasury, the history of a letterless people. He heard of Garis the (Stupidly) Brave, who overcame the Dream-dragons of Northerland, and his bride Areia the (Tediously) Pure, who preserved their people from the demons of Rakennor. He was enraptured by the tale of Orsald the (‘Will I ever get to sleep?’ whined the bard) Everlasting, who routed the shadowy hordes of Sithron the Black in the war of the Old Gods. He thrilled to the epic of Old King Tal, who scoured the coastlands when the Old Gods were gone, and made there the fairest of all mortal kingdoms. Worst of all, Trianon believed every word. One by one his brothers left childish tales behind, and rode off to the stations their father found them. Trismegistus, the eldest, became a knight of the King’s household; the second became a Presbyter of the Green, the third a captain of cavalry, and so down the line. But Trianon kept listening to the bards even when he was made esquire to a petty lord of the Wyvern Marches; so that his head was fairly marinated in vain romantic notions, and his lord despaired of him at last. Then, having given him the accolade of knighthood by an exasperated wallop from a five-foot blade, he sent Trianon back in disgust to his father’s house. There the young knight had no one to tell him that the age of heroes was over, if indeed it had ever happened at all. He used to gallivant about the countryside on what he called errantry, and made an immortal nuisance of himself. One day at the ragged end of winter, as Trianon rode knight-erranting on a stallion of some quality — it was a hand-me-down from his third brother, Trimontius, who was away at court flattering the best friend of the catamite of the confessor of the King, that being the proper way to get promoted in the cavalry — one day he heard, or thought he heard, a music of silver horns in the distance. The sound was most like the cry of a huntsman’s horn, but brighter and richer, its echoes laden with a sweet ache of enchantment. A fierce desire awoke in his heart, a desire to ride to far countries and brave unknown perils, to find the source of that music and make it his own, though it led him in chase to the ends of the earth. Trianon reined in his mount. ‘Did you hear that, Zadek?’ he asked his manservant, a morose grey fellow twice his age, mounted on a morose grey donkey. ‘Begging your pardon, sir,’ said Zadek, patting his belly contritely. ‘It was cabbage and onions in the servants’ mess last night.’ Trianon gave him a bewildered look. ‘Cabbage and onions, Zadek? Fie on your prating! Horns I heard, horns of bright silver, that echoed from the utmost walls of yonder valley.’ Zadek gave Trianon a reproachful look, as nearly as one could tell through the fringe of silver hair half hiding his eyes. ‘Now, sir, there’s no call to mock. I was never so loud as all that.’ It occurred to Trianon that they were arguing at cross-purposes. Dismissing it with a shrug, he started his mount down the broad slope of the valley at an easy canter. The donkey’s short legs laboured to keep pace. Soon he had left behind the chill and stony hills of his father’s domain, and was riding through a low country of rich tilled plots and lush green pastures, divided by dry-stone walls. Away to his right a moor of brake and timothy sloped lazily up to a long, treeless ridge that bisected the valley. As he scanned the ridge for trumpeters, or at least for foes, he caught sight of a fair young damsel in a fairly obvious state of distress. For the ridge ran through the lands of Lord Carle, who was a curmudgeon of the first water, and his son took after him; and this son, seeing a trespasser silhouetted on the crest, had set his hounds on her. Her mount, a high-strung palfrey, had balked at the dogs, and was rearing and skittering on the brink of a steep slope that fell away to a cold, pebbly stream. Trianon forgot all about horns or cabbages, as the case might be. His imagination leapt to a fevered state of attention. ‘Wolves, Zadek!’ he cried. ‘Dire wolves of the frozen North! They have driven that damsel to the brink of a mighty precipice. Come! We must ride to her rescue!’ Trianon dug his spurs into the charger’s flanks, and it responded like the blooded veteran it was: it charged. Before his brother Trimontius discovered the importance of catamites and their friends, he had wasted a lot of time on irrelevancies like leading men and fighting battles. A horse with that kind of experience cared not a fig for hounds. It bowled through them like a cannonball through ninepins and kept going. Trianon hauled hard on the reins until the charger subsided into a trot, and circled back to meet the palfrey on the second pass. The hounds forgathered to watch from a safe distance. The girl was a fair rider, and had reined in her palfrey by the time Trianon reached her. ‘Fair lady,’ he said, ‘I fain would plight my horse and my sword to the service of your beauty.’ Or rather, he set out to say it; but he had hardly begun when his charger scented mare, and tried to express its own appreciation in a more direct and earthy manner. Between the earliness of the season and her ordeal with the hounds, to say nothing of riders and saddles, the mare was in no mood for a mating. It was only natural that she should neigh angrily and shy away. And as there was a sixty-degree slope behind, it was only natural that she should lose her footing and drop into the stream with a freezing splash. By sheer luck, whether good or ill, Trianon had just taken the girl’s hand to bestow a courtly kiss upon it. When the palfrey fell from under her, he snatched her out of the air with the practised skill that clumsy people acquire by a lifetime of accidents, and set her down neatly on his saddlebow. Her hair was long and brown and windblown, her body lean rather than slender, in the way that horsy young women have; eyes blue and wide with shock, face flushed, bosom heaving, for so many successive jolts had left her rather winded. In short, she was thoroughly flustered, and she was the kind of girl who looks her best with a good fluster. Trianon was stunned by this vision, and when being stunned failed to express his feelings, he was forced to resort to speechlessness. The girl disentangled herself from his nerveless grip and dropped easily to the ground. ‘Thanks awfully,’ she said, dusting herself off. ‘’Fraid Snowdrop is rather terrified of hounds. Were they yours?’ Before Trianon could answer, a booming voice broke in: ‘No, they’re mine! And if any harm’s come to ’em, I swear I’ll — Hul-lo!’ A burly young man had ridden up behind Trianon while he was gawping. A beefy right hand flew to the man’s sword-hilt, but before he could draw it, he rounded to and caught a glimpse of the brown-haired girl. ‘Hul-lo!’ he repeated, adding a low wolf-whistle for emphasis. ‘Your pardon, Lord!’ the girl said meekly. The burly man grinned. ‘My father’s the lord, not I. Sir Braggan Carle, very much at your service, my lady.’ He dismounted and bowed low. ‘So sorry my hounds troubled you.’ ‘Oh! It was nothing. Nothing at all. —Mariel Keldan,’ she said, sketching a curtsy. Trianon worked his jaw up and down like a small dog trying to take hold of a cow’s thighbone. By a supreme effort, he managed to emit a plaintive squeak. Meanwhile Zadek came plodding up the hill, leading Snowdrop. The palfrey was chilled and winded, but not otherwise injured. ‘Your horse, ma’am,’ he said, pulling his silver forelock as he handed her the reins. ‘She’ll have a chill in her muscles, I shouldn’t wonder. I’d give her a good rub down if I were you.’ Sir Braggan Carle offered Mariel a musclebound arm. ‘It’s late,’ he said, ‘and your Snowdrop won’t bear hard riding after that fall. You’ll stay at my father’s castle tonight.’ ‘Thank you!’ said Mariel, casting confused glances at her troop of benefactors. Sir Braggan led her away and helped her into the saddle behind him. By the time Trianon found his voice they were off at a slow trot, with Snowdrop trailing after. ‘Sir Trianon Barr,’ he said to the empty air. ‘At your service, my lady.’ Zadek gave him a mournful look through the silver tangle of his hair. ‘Let’s be off home, sir,’ he said. ‘I shouldn’t wonder if it snowed tonight.’   It did snow that night in the highlands of Barr, and for several nights after. Trianon spent the days moping by the hearth in his father’s hall, licking the wounds of his pride. The frost broke, the crocus bloomed, and Trianon remained inconsolable. The first earthworm squirmed through the half-frozen soil, raised its head into the bright clear air, drank in the sunlight and the sheer joy of a new lease of worm-life at the end of a hard winter, and disappeared ecstatically down the gullet of the first robin. Trianon thought it served him right. But even the most assiduous moping cannot keep a young man’s spirits down for ever. The harsh winds of the thaw gave way to the generous warmth of full spring, and Trianon quit the hall to spend his days on horseback, straining his ears for some distant echo of the silver horns; but he did not hear them again. One day, despairing of horns, he thought he would settle for a glimpse of Mariel; so he rode down the valley to the edge of Lord Keldan’s lands. And there indeed he found her: the picture of demure beauty, clad all in white, studiously pretending not to notice her admirer. Unfortunately for Trianon, the admirer she was pretending not to notice was Sir Braggan Carle. She failed to notice Trianon without any pretending at all. It was for Sir Braggan’s benefit that Mariel went riding nearly every day thereafter, picking primroses to set in her long dark tresses, singing sweet maidenly songs, and suchlike virginal wiles. If Trianon had been in the habit of observing the obvious, he might have noticed this. But he was far too busy being smitten. Sadly, Sir Braggan was not in the habit of observing the obvious either. Had Mariel been a fine chestnut brood-mare or a well-built foxhound bitch, that would have been another matter. Not that he lacked all interest. Her dowry included some hundred acres of the best deer-park in Lúmond, and his father had begun haggling with Lord Keldan to arrange a match. But her personal charms had nothing to do with the case. They had everything to do with Trianon’s case, however, and as the second full moon of spring approached, he decided to lay siege to the lady’s affections. ‘What think you, Zadek?’ he asked, dreamily watching as Mariel wove white flowers into a garland. ‘According to the bards, it would be proper to send word by the lady’s maidservant, telling of my undying devotion. You must bear my message thither.’ ‘As you like, sir,’ said Zadek doubtfully. ‘Not that the young lady would take it kindly. Set her father’s dogs on us, I shouldn’t wonder.’ Trianon clapped Zadek on the back. ‘Stout fellow! The Lady Mariel loves flowers, as do all fair maidens, ’tis said. With mine own hand I shall pick a nosegay from some goodwife’s garden, as an earnest to accompany my words. You shall take them to — What is the maid’s name, Zadek?’ ‘Gerda, sir.’ ‘As you say. But all must be in secret. Have you some innocent cause to seek her company?’ Zadek had already been seeking Gerda’s company for a perfectly guilty cause, but he thought it wiser not to say so. ‘Hard to say, sir.’ ‘Excellent! I shall gather blossoms — marigolds for Mariel, what say you?’ ‘I don’t think they’re in season, sir.’ ‘I care not. I shall gather blossoms, I say, and you shall bear them to Gerda, with my words for her mistress. Tell her to say unto the Lady Mariel—’ Trianon pursed his lips and thought hard. ‘Say that of all the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, there is none fair save by the grace of her favour. Say that the sun was dark and the wind was still until Mariel came to give them life. Say that in the day that she first came gathering posies in the bright mead, the winter of my heart ended, and all the world quickened to glorious spring. Say—’ He chewed his thumb pensively. ‘Say that her knight has beheld her from afar, and wishes only to worship in the temple of her presence. Have you got that, Zadek?’ ‘Temple of her presence, ay, sir. Her knight, Sir Trianon—’ ‘Nay, nay, Zadek! Speak not my name, not yet. Let her but know that she is admired — that she is desired. Let her delight in the mystery awhile. When the time is ripe, I shall declare myself.’ ‘Very good, sir. Her knight, who hasn’t got a name, has beheld her from afar.’ ‘Just so! Come to me at midday, and I shall give you the flowers. Keep them well hid, and let no man guess your errand.’ Gerda must have passed on both flowers and words to some effect, for when Mariel took her ride the next morning, she glowed with a smug and secret joy. She wore a diaphanous gown of apple green, a golden circlet in her hair, an enigmatic smile on her rosy lips, a delicate flush on her cheeks, artfully applied out of a jar. It was an effort well wasted. Sir Braggan, engrossed in the training of a promising young hound, paid her not the slightest heed. She withdrew in a frosty huff. That evening, Trianon rode within bowshot of Lord Keldan’s castle, Zadek in tow. Picketing his horse at the roadside, he went on under cover of dusk. The stars were coming out when he reached the lawn under the outlying tower where Mariel sat in her chamber, working at a bit of embroidery by candlelight. Since the castle was built more for show than for defence, Mariel’s chamber had a proper window and a small but genuine balcony. To climb the ivied trellis and make off with her would have been the work of a moment for any resourceful rogue. Perhaps Lord Keldan had put his daughter there with just such a rogue in mind. If that was his hope, it miscarried. While Trianon might pass for a rogue in a dim light, he was anything but resourceful. Craning his neck to see Mariel’s lithe form silhouetted in the window, he unslung a battered mandolin and spent a painfully long while tuning it. Zadek ground his teeth at the noise. When each string was individually and sublimely off key, Trianon began to plink out an air with fingers made clumsy by the nightly chill. The window opened briefly to disgorge an old boot, which he caught deftly in the eye. Nothing daunted, he started another tune: a fractured rendition of ‘Lily o’ the Moon,’ or perhaps a foul slander on ‘My Love’s a Rose with Many a Thorn.’ And to make his performance perfectly pathetic, he lifted up his voice in a foul imitation of song. The hardest heart would have been moved by that unearthly noise, and Mariel’s heart was anything but hard. She stepped out onto the balcony, her body wrapped in a pale rose nightgown, her face bathed in moonlight, and cried out in a voice more melodious by far than her admirer’s: ‘Stop that noise or I’ll brain you!’ And she hove half a brick over the waist-high battlement, missing Zadek by inches. Trianon left off torturing his mandolin. ‘O fair lady Mariel, it is I, your knight! I have come to—’ ‘Oh, my sweet knight!’ Mariel’s voice was transformed with astonishment and delight. ‘Come up, come up this instant!’ Trianon started up the trellis, but lost his footing in the ivy and fell heavily to earth. The mandolin snapped under him with a mournful twang. ‘Are you all right, my love?’ asked Mariel, peering anxiously over the battlement. ‘I would fain take a thousand such falls, fair lady, to hear those words from your lips! Zadek, give me a hand up.’ ‘As you wish, sir,’ came a muffled voice. Trianon started back up the trellis, his booted toes prodding for footholds. After a good deal of fumbling he found a handy ledge, a sort of round protrusion from which he could really launch himself into the climb. ‘You’re standing on my head, sir,’ said Zadek. Trianon took his weight off his manservant and hauled himself up the wall, while Mariel carolled words of encouragement. ‘Sir Braggan!’ she cried warmly, stooping to kiss him. ‘Sir Trianon,’ he said as his pale face popped up in a crenel. Mariel’s lips unpuckered. ‘Sir Who?’ ‘Sir Trianon Barr. Your knight.’ Mariel clapped a snowy hand to her forehead. ‘Oh, you silly weed. What are you doing here?’ Trianon’s answer was lost in a sudden baying of hounds. Two human voices rose above the pack. One was Zadek’s, crying out as a dog sank its teeth into a sensitive part of his anatomy. The other was Lord Keldan’s scandalized shout: ‘Mariel! You have got a man on your trellis!’ ‘Not as such, Father,’ she answered. ‘It’s that daft boy of Lord Barr’s.’ ‘Is it now? Well, boy, if you don’t get off my wall in a pig’s whisper, I’ll put a spear in your back.’ Trianon let go and dropped, and might have broken a leg, but as luck would have it, Zadek was there to break his fall. ‘Now clear off,’ said Lord Keldan, ‘and leave my daughter alone.’   Two men-at-arms escorted Trianon back to Castle Barr and deposited him in the great hall, where his father sat glowering upon his high seat. ‘What do you have to say for yourself, boy?’ he shouted, and without stopping for an answer he went on: ‘It’s a year since you were knighted, you clot, and what have you done since then? Mooned about like a lovesick calf, and stuck your foul nose into all the neighbours’ business. Errantry, bah!’ ‘My lord and father,’ Trianon replied earnestly, ‘it is dole and sorrow to me that I have done no deeds of worth to add to the glory of the House of Barr. But I have not passed all my days in idlesse. Peradventure—’ ‘Stop that! I’ll have none of that high language in my castle. If you’ll not curse and mumble like a proper Lúmondish knight. . . .’ Lord Barr trailed off, unable to think of a suitable threat. ‘Oh, get to the point. And it had better be good.’ A faraway look came into Trianon’s eyes, making him seem enraptured, or perhaps just unusually stupid. ‘But few days since, when spring first touched the lower meads, I heard as it were a music of distant horns, a voice of valiant trumps calling to me across the abysm of ages. I yearn to follow that voice. I would fain walk in the footsteps of Orsald or Tal, and see what name I might make for myself in the world. I wish to be a hero, my lord.’ ‘A hero?’ the old man roared. ‘Am I a hero, that my son should be one also? People would think you were illegitimate. By thunder, I’ll not have it!’ He crashed his right fist down on the arm of his chair. ‘Now be off with you, before I lose my temper!’ Trianon bowed and withdrew. Zadek made to follow him, but Lord Barr checked him with a gesture. ‘Not you, churl.’ Zadek pulled his forelock. ‘As you wish, my lord.’ ‘It looks to me like Trianon’s wits have finally slipped their leash.’ ‘I shouldn’t wonder, my lord.’ Trianon’s father sighed. ‘Where did I go wrong, Zadek? What have I done to deserve him?’ Zadek regarded him mournfully through his curtain of silver hair. ‘You do have six other sons, my lord.’ Lord Barr brightened. ‘That’s true. But by my beard, I thought seventh sons were supposed to be lucky.’ ‘Fool’s luck, my lord, if you ask me.’ ‘Hah. Much good it may do him. Damn his lights and liver, what am I going to do with him? If only he’d gone bad in a normal way, like Triskelion. Wining and wenching would make less talk than — than this rot. Trumps indeed!’ Zadek licked his lips and said in a tentative murmur: ‘By your leave, my lord?’ Lord Barr looked down at him with a flinty eye. ‘Well?’ ‘I’m a poor man, my lord, too poor to marry or sire a child—’ ‘If it’s money you want, the answer is still no.’ ‘—but I have had a father, and I know how a father cares for his sons. I shouldn’t wonder if you had my neck in a noose, for what I’m about to say may be Trianon’s death.’ ‘We can always hope,’ said Lord Barr drily. ‘Keep talking.’ ‘My lord, Trianon is a troublesome lad, though spirited—’ ‘Troublesome is not the word, Zadek. He’s a freak of nature! Serenading Lord Keldan’s daughter! I ask you!’ ‘Perhaps he has a sensitive soul.’ ‘He’ll have a sensitive hide when I’m finished with him! He’s made me a laughingstock for the last time. If that nitwit Tulf hadn’t knighted the brat, I’d lock him up. Or hire him out to a village that wants an idiot. But you can’t do that sort of thing to a knight.’ ‘My lord, you could let him be a hero.’ Lord Barr stared as if Zadek had just laid an ostrich egg. ‘Let him be a hero? As well let him fly to the moon. By thunder, do you think me a bigger fool than he is?’ Zadek cringed and wrung his hands. ‘I meant no offence, my lord! What I mean is this. Let him chase his dreams. Give him a fast horse and point his nose west. He’ll go questing in the mountains, and with any luck, he won’t come back.’ A smile spread across Lord Barr’s face like a snake sunning itself on a warm rock. ‘By thunder, Zadek, that is an idea. He can chase his imaginary trumpets clear off the cliffs at the world’s end. It’ll have to be two horses, but that’s a small price to pay. Wonderful! You’re a marvel, Zadek. I hate to think how I’ll get by without you.’ Zadek swallowed hard. ‘Without me, my lord?’ Lord Barr hopped down from his high seat and gave Zadek a friendly clap on the shoulder. ‘Come, come! My heart is not so hard. Trianon needs a keeper; I know that as well as you. I can’t turn him out in the wild alone. He might be eaten by bears — or burnt up by dragons — or worse yet. . . .’ ‘My lord?’ ‘He might even come back. You will try to prevent that, won’t you, Zadek? Because if ever you set foot on my lands again, I’ll have you hanged as a horse-thief.’  

The cry of the highbrow

‘Ah, Shakespeare. Quite a promising poet in a minor way, when he was writing those sonnets and sucking up to Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers. All very proper. Pity he squandered his talents by going into that low-brow theatre business. ‘I wonder what ever became of him? He could have been somebody if he’d stuck to proper literature.’

Extruded Books: a cautionary tale

For some thirty years now, I have been following the commercial publishing industry, particularly in its various New York mutations, and trying (for commercial reasons of my own) to figure out why apparently intelligent people would do business in such cockeyed ways. I don’t pretend to have figured out the whole story, but I have pieced together a good deal of evidence, and I believe I can point out the major turnings in the road that led publishers to the pass they are in today. Rather than bore you, my 3.6 Loyal Readers, with dry details and rubbishy statistics, I shall shamelessly exploit my status as a spinner of tall tales to set forth the data under cover of a fictitious example. All names have been changed to protect the manifestly guilty; so let me introduce you to Nathan Extruded, founder and publisher of Extruded Books. Nathan Extruded cut his teeth as an editor for Crapsack Books in the 1960s, rising to become Senior Editor of their science fiction line. In 1974, he jumped ship to found his own imprint under the auspices of a different major publisher, which, several mergers later, would emerge as a division of a Big Six publishing conglomerate. Extruded Books released its first titles in 1975, and was just becoming familiar to the SF-reading public when the great SF boom of the late 1970s increased its business by an order of magnitude. Let us look at Extruded Books as it was in the early 1980s. All its books are published as paperback originals. Genre writers prefer to deal directly with paperback houses, because most of the money is in paperback sales and a hardcover publisher routinely pockets half the royalties from any paperback edition of its books. A couple of daring young genre publishers are experimenting with combined hard- and soft-cover deals, giving the writer all the royalties from both formats, but Nathan Extruded isn’t in that game yet. His imprint is only one small division of Maw & Tentacle, Inc., whose (much older and more prestigious) hardcover imprints are jealous of their turf. He would love to print Extruded hardcovers but simply can’t get permission. As a mid-sized SF publisher, Extruded releases eight titles per month, every month, without fail. This is because the majority of paperback sales still happen through supermarkets, newsstands, pharmacies, mom-and-pop stores, and other general retailers, which are served by a national network of distributors and rack-jobbers. That means most paperbacks are still displayed on old-fashioned wire racks, with strictly limited space in each; monthly rack slots are a prized commodity. Maw & Tentacle has control of about sixty rack slots for all its various paperback imprints, and Extruded receives eight of those, strictly rationed. If Nathan wants to publish nine books in a month, too bad: a paperback simply won’t sell enough copies to break even unless it gets wide distribution through the rack-jobbers. If he only wants to publish seven, even worse: Maw & Tentacle will simply take away the unused slot and assign it to a different imprint, rather than let some other publishing company take it away from them. Once you lose a rack slot, you may never get it back. In a typical month, Extruded puts out a monthly lead title by a name author, which gets some advertising, some hype from the sales force, and a review in Publishers Weekly — a favourable review, since Maw & Tentacle is a big advertiser and PW knows what is expected of it. Two slots will be taken up by reprints, because a book takes up just as much rack space whether it was written yesterday or forty years ago. When Extruded releases the third volume of Tracy Tolkienesque’s bestselling Baron of the Bracelets series, the reprint slots will go to the first two volumes, because there is nothing a fantasy reader hates so much as buying Book Three and being unable to find the first two. The last five slots go to midlist writers of various sizes and degrees. Just to be on the safe side, Extruded likes to buy those midlist books a year or two in advance, so that if an emergency occurs, or a writer flakes out and misses a hard deadline, there will always be another book in the pipeline ready for release. Nathan keeps a few reliable hack writers under contract for just such eventualities. If all else fails, he can give his #8 slot to the latest instalment of Joe Potboiler’s ongoing saga, Zap Guns of Planet Derivative. This will be Book Eighteen of the series, and the first seventeen are long since out of print. Since readers hate that, each Zap Guns book is a guaranteed money-loser; but it earns its keep by occupying that all-important rack slot, warming the bench, so to speak, until next month’s list comes along. Better to publish a sure-fire loser than to cut back permanently to seven books a month. All of Extruded Books’ practices are fine-tuned for this way of doing business. For instance, unlike the hardcover imprints higher up Maw & Tentacle’s food chain, Extruded accepts unsolicited manuscripts, which means that Nathan hires summer interns at minimum wage to read slush for him. Someone has to take Joe Potboiler’s spot when he finally dies of malnutrition after eighteen years on a Ramen noodle diet. But this is a low priority. Extruded prints maybe one or two books a year from the slush pile, and though Nathan would never be so foolish as to admit it in public, those books are kept in semi-permanent limbo and only released when there is a vacancy in the list that even Joe Potboiler can’t fill. Once he kept a slush manuscript for four years after acceptance before finally putting it into print. And of course, thirty days later it was out of print again. It had served its purpose; and so had its author. We skip ahead in time, pausing for a moment in 1986. That year, Maw & Tentacle finally caves in and lets Extruded publish its own hardcovers, after Tracy Tolkienesque threatens to leave them for a hard-and-softcover deal with Tor. Now Extruded does twelve hardcovers a year, and with rare exceptions, those books become the monthly paperback leaders for the following year. Business is good, but expenses are rising, because that ever-present slush pile keeps getting harder to deal with. Now that every writer has a desktop computer, even the worst manuscripts are correctly formatted and neatly printed, unlike the old days, when the real stinkers were scribbled in red crayon on something that looked like paper napkins. But there are always plenty of English majors willing to work for minimum wage, with the prospect of getting a real editorial job if they discover a hot new writer in the slush. That actually happened once. Fast forward to the mid-1990s. The business is in turmoil, thanks to an idiotic decision by Safeway — for Walmart is not yet in the grocery business. Safeway decided to fire all its rack-jobbers and buy direct from the publishers. In theory, this eliminates an unproductive middleman. In practice, the rack-jobbers were the only people who knew what books would sell best in each city and state across the country. Safeway bought the same books for all its stores nationwide, and was astonished to discover that what sells in San Francisco is poison in Peoria. Other chain stores took their buying in-house, fearing that the rack-jobbers would go out of business, and in a couple of years this became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many smaller stores have simply stopped carrying books, and the supermarkets and drug stores are carrying far fewer titles. For the first time, most paperback sales go through actual bookshops. This gives far too much power to a new broker in the industry: the chain-store buyer. Extruded Books still releases eight titles a month, but it no longer has guaranteed distribution for any of them. In order to sell the monthly leaders in quantity, Nathan has to cough up money for co-ops and end placements — basically, to pay rent for shelf space. Beyond that, it is the handful of chain buyers who decide which books they will carry and which ones die on the presses. Tracy Tolkienesque is in high dudgeon because her latest book, Manley Masculine and His He-Manly Phallic Sword, has a cover illo of a buxom blonde bimbo in a chainmail bikini, with Manley Masculine nowhere in sight. Nathan tries to explain to her that it is a Scientific Fact that books with blonde bimbos on the cover sell better than books with hulking barbarian swordsmen. Actually, the problem is that the people who buy SF for the chain stores are dirty old men with breast fixations, and are liable to turn down even the surest-fire seller if it hasn’t got boobies on it. This is also why Maw & Tentacle’s romance imprint has so many book covers featuring buxom Regency belles swooning in their lovers’ arms in poses that cleverly display all the cleavage exposed by their low-cut ball gowns. (But all is not hopeless. Soon the romance buyers will be replaced by dirty old women, and the covers will begin to feature shirtless male models instead.) The central problem remains: Not every book gets adequate distribution, and as a result, sales are down. Since modern computer technology has made it cheaper and easier to publish a single title, Extruded Books increases its output to twelve titles per month, figuring that each chain will pick and choose enough of them to pay the bills. A little later, it goes to sixteen titles per month, with the full knowledge that the bottom two or three titles will not be printed at all. They’ll be scheduled, all right, but will not receive enough advance orders to justify even a minimal print run. This practice is known in the trade as ‘skipping’. Nathan hasn’t got the budget to hire extra editorial staff, but despite their grumbling, his existing editors can just about handle the workload — as long as they aren’t expected to actually edit the books they buy. But, hey, that’s what spellcheckers are for. Move on again to 2003. The big-box stores are the only brick-and-mortar outlets that still buy midlist books in quantity, and Extruded is entirely at their mercy. will sell anything Extruded publishes, but they don’t keep large quantities of inventory, and Nathan can’t justify a paperback print run based on that. Now Extruded is scheduling twenty-four titles a month and actually releasing about twenty. All the senior editors have quit to take less stressful and better-paying jobs as rickshaw-pullers in the Himalayas, but there’s always a fresh crop of interns to replace them. Extruded no longer accepts unagented submissions, but the slush pile is bigger than ever, because agents are taking on unpublished writers — someone has to! — and then spamming every house in New York with simultaneous submissions, where unagented writers had to submit to one publisher at a time. Tracy Tolkienesque is throwing a positive tantrum because her latest manuscript languished in the editor’s in-box for fourteen months before it was read and accepted; but then, Tracy Tolkienesque isn’t the big seller that she used to be. Her next book is scheduled for release two and a half years after acceptance, and if she doesn’t like it, she can change her name to Rowling. New writers are lucky if their agented submissions are read within a couple of years. At this point, most of Extruded’s new releases come out in trade paperback and never make it to mass-market, because frankly, Borders and Barnes & Noble will never buy in enough copies to justify a mass-market printing. Besides, if you’re only going to sell 5000 copies of a book, far better to sell a $16 yuppieback than an $8 mass-market edition. Gone, long gone, are the days when a book that sold only 25,000 copies in paper was a flop. Despite all these difficulties, Extruded somehow manages to earn enough profit to satisfy its new corporate overlord — Maw & Tentacle having merged with Gargantuan Media to form a new conglomerate, GargantuMaw. Now we arrive at 2010. Nathan Extruded is semi-retired now, a figurehead for an imprint that is really run by a bright young MBA from the Frankfurt head office of Greedhead Cheeseparer HackGrind GargantuMaw FifthReich GmbH. (Don’t worry, they’ve gone to a corporate branding consultant for help, and the whole behemoth is about to be renamed BixBoox.) There is a new thingy on the market called ebooks, which nobody really seems to understand. Books are books, dammit, they’re printed on paper, and how the hell do you control something that can be copied just by transmitting it over the Internet, anyway? Extruded Books, in lockstep with all the other hundreds of imprints of G.C.HG.GM.FR. GmbH and the other cartel publishers, has just seized the ebook rights of hundreds of authors who never agreed to sell any such rights in the contracts they signed. This is of course right and necessary, because as long as an ebook edition of a work is offered for sale, it can never technically go out of print; which means that the rights will never revert to the author. Just the other day, Extruded made a cool hundred grand from the movie rights to a book that it controlled in this way. The paper edition was pulped and recycled four years ago, and the ebook has sold a total of six copies, but by golly it’s ‘in print’ by the letter of the law — at least the way G.C.HG.GM.FR. GmbH chooses to interpret it. And what writer can afford enough lawyers to prove them wrong? But there is a cloud on this bright horizon. Two clouds, in fact. For one, physical bookshops are falling like dominoes, and Borders itself is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Books are being shipped and not paid for, and cash flow is painfully hard to come by. For another, Amazon seems to think that these ebook things have a right to exist and that they ought to be sold for a price that reflects the utter absence of printing, shipping, or any other physical production cost. The imprint’s current bestseller, Shiny Sexy Cannibal Zombies by Psyche O’Path, is available in hardcover and ebook at a list price of $29.99, wholesale $14.99. But for some reason, Amazon wants to sell the ebook edition as a loss-leader for $9.99. Horrors! They’re cannibalizing sales of the hardcover! How can Extruded make money on a very expensively produced product in boards when another edition is being sold for a third of the price? That’s why they don’t release the paperback until the following year, dammit! Fortunately, that loophole is about to be closed. The Big Six (and BixBoox, née G.C.HG.GM.FR. GmbH) are hammering out a collective agreement with Apple to sell ebooks on an agency model. The publishers will set the price and receive a flat percentage, and in return they will agree not to sell to any other ebook retailer on more favourable terms. Soon Amazon comes to heel and adopts the agency model; that’ll show ’em! Now, instead of selling Shiny Sexy Cannibal Zombies for $9.99 and paying the publisher $14.99, they’ll have to sell it for $14.99 and pay the publisher . . . er . . . $10.49. Extruded Books receives 30 percent less per sale, and since the retail price of the ebook has gone up, there are a lot fewer sales. And now we come down to April, 2012. Ebook sales, frankly, stink; but since Extruded keeps 75 percent of the net on ebooks sold via agency — 52.5 percent of retail — with basically zero marginal cost per book, profits have taken a modest upward bounce. To guard against any future cannibalization of hardcover sales, all new contracts are being written with a ‘windowing’ clause, stating that no ebook edition can be released anywhere, by anyone, for at least 18 months after the publication date of the original trade book. That gives Extruded time to milk the profits from hardcover, trade paperback, and sometimes even mass-market, before casting the title off to let ebook readers pick the bones. Then comes the bombshell. Tracy Tolkienesque, who hasn’t sold a book to a commercial publisher since her last Manley Masculine got ‘skipped’ in 2005 (thanks to a chain buyer who didn’t care about boobies), has resurfaced with a self-published ebook series, a sequel to Baron of the Bracelets. In just six months, she has released the whole tetralogy (which would have been spread out over at least five years, if a sensible publisher like Extruded had been in charge), and sold over 500,000 individual volumes at the risible price of $2.99 apiece. Now she is featured in Amazon’s latest SEC filing, delivering a gushing testimonial about the power and freedom bestowed upon authors by Kindle Direct Publishing. ‘Even when I was writing bestsellers in the Eighties, I never made this kind of money,’ she says. Over $150,000 a month, to be precise; and Extruded Books, after all it did for her career, doesn’t get a penny. How can this be? For 36 years, Extruded Books has been making money off its carefully designated and walled-off share of Big Publishing’s monopoly on commercial book distribution. All their business practices were carefully designed to protect that delicate jugular, to keep small presses and vanity publishers out of the bookshops and out of the public eye. They might not be able to create bestsellers, but they certainly had the power to prevent them. And now this raddled old hack does an end run around the entire system! How dare she? How dare Amazon? They’re all in this together! Damn you people, don’t you know that distribution is expensive? It’s all about the rack slots! OK, so rack slots as such haven’t existed since the collapse of the rack-jobbers almost twenty years ago, but the job of a publisher is still the same: to choose, from a multitude of authors and an ocean of manuscripts, just those few books that deserve to be squeezed through the bottleneck of distribution and delivered to the public. Somehow, BixBoox and the rest of the major publishing conglomerates have to recapture control. Somehow, they have to stop these self-published yahoos from circumventing the tried and true channels of the industry. People like Tolkienesque have no right to do such things. Hell, there’s probably a law of physics against it; and if not, there should certainly be an act of Congress. And if we let her get away with it, what could happen next? Psyche O’Path might jump ship! These people must be stopped! Where’s King Canute when you need him? And now, here comes the Department of Justice, saying that the Big Six publishers are acting in restraint of trade, and the agency model can’t be enforced on any retailer who wants to set their own prices. There must be a solution that will restore publishers’ control of the channels of distribution. Writers are easy, books are cheap, but distribution is hard and expensive. That’s the way the world is, the way it always was and always will be, per omnia saecula, saecula saeculorum. The alternative is just . . . unthinkable! Isn’t it?

The publisher’s tale

‘I would have liked to know my great-great-great-great-great-uncle Cholmondeley Witherhead,’ the Publisher told me sadly. ‘He used to work as a gatekeeper on London Wall, two or three hundred years ago. Terribly upset he was, when he heard they were going to knock it down; and not just because it put him out of a job. It was a whole way of life that he mourned, and what he feared was nothing less than the end of civilization. ‘ “By my good faith, Sir,” said Uncle Cholmondeley, “I and my Brethren at the Gates are true Servants of the Publick, and London will be the worse without us. How will any one get in or out of the City, if there be no Gatekeepers to let them pass?” ‘And you know,’ the Publisher added in a tone of sad reflection, ‘I have never figured out how those Londoners ever managed without him.’

John C. Wright on the Nebula Awards

John C. Wright explains how they pick the Nebula Award winners:
The selection process is relatively simple: the survivors of a Deathball tournament are examined by the Colossus-Skynet system for irregulationary defects, and if found acceptable, are sent to the haunted planet Arisia for mind-to-mind examination by the alien superbeing known as Mentor, and those who return sane are conducted to Wallach IV where the Bene Gesserit Witches test the candidate with a “gom jabbar” and the Box of Pain to distinguish the true humans from the mere human animals. Survivors are taught the Martian Language in order to achieve fourth level consciousness and exposed to the mind-altering rays of the Evolutionary Granolith, and expected to make at least one “drop” in full kit onto a planet controlled by the Klendathu. Then any remaining candidates are sent to Trantor, or maybe some other world covered entirely with buildings, and examined by the Jedi Council and the Psychohistorians to see whether passing the candidate will cause a disturbance in the force or throw off the predictive plan of history. The remaining candidates then cover themselves with walrus grease and wrestle nude with Harlan Ellison, or his evil twin Zebulon Ellison, in the Arena of Death, on a tightrope above a field of radio-active radium-knives. The winner is granted by the Padishah Emperor any space-kingdom on any of the garden-planets accidentally created by the Genesis Machine in the Multiple Green Sun system at the core of the galaxy, and any space princess for his bride, with the one exception (obviously) of the voluptuous yet deadly Princess Venomia, the Black Widow of Outer Space. The year Leigh Brackett won, instead of a space princess, she demanded her beloved World-Wrecker Hamilton be released from his disembodied confinement within the death-asteroid of the limbo dimension. The Padishah Emperor was loathe to set free so dangerous a planet-killer, but he had no choice.
I always thought SFWA was up to something fishier than meets the fishy eye.

Internet sociology

I have done a meticulous and exhaustive study, and found that 94.6% of flamewars in message boards and blog comments begin something like this: Poster #1: X. Poster #2: What do you mean, Q? #1: I didn't say Q, I said X. #2: There you go again with Q. #1: No, I'm telling you I said X. #2: Q? Q?!! How DARE you say Q, you (expletives deleted)! Poster #3: Calm down, buddy, he's only saying K. #2: That's what I said . . . he's saying Q . . . and don't tell me to calm down! . . . . . . . Poster #1138: Oh, for Pete's sake.

Meritocracy: a fable

The Lion having been shot by a passing hunter, the other beasts held a council to decide which of them should succeed him as King. All were agreed that the new king should be the one best fitted to rule, as excelling in the highest and most noble qualities of a ruler. But there was a trifle of difficulty in agreeing which quality best befitted a monarch. ‘Courage is the noblest quality of all,’ said the Shrew, ‘for it was the hallmark of our late King. And as all the world knows I fear nothing, I should therefore be King in his place.’ ‘Courage is vain without strength,’ said the Bull. ‘As I am the strongest of us gathered here, it is quite plain to me that I should be King.’ ‘Strength is no better than weakness if it arrives too late,’ said the Horse. ‘My swiftness is what you really want in a King.’ ‘What are strength and speed without vision to guide them?’ said the Eagle. ‘My eyes are keener than any of yours, and therefore I should be King.’ ‘What a King needs most,’ said the Ape, ‘is a sound grasp of things. Not one of you has an appendage to compete with my hands.’ ‘All these things are useless,’ said the Owl, ‘without wisdom to direct them. And as I am well known to be wisest—’ But before he was done speaking, all the beasts set to quarrelling with a will, each proclaiming his pre-eminence at the top of his voice. It was some time before the Bull (who was loudest) called them to order, reminding them that not all their claims had been heard. The Sheep and the Fox had yet to speak. The Sheep, of course, had the admirable point of view that it was peace that the beasts needed most, and as he was the most peaceable of all creatures, they could do worse than profit by his royal example. But while he was waiting meekly for the noise to subside, the Fox stole up from behind and killed him and ate him, and was just finishing his meal when the others called his name. ‘What of you, cousin Fox?’ they said. ‘Surely you have some reason to offer why you should be King.’ ‘I, cousins?’ said the Fox, licking his chops. ‘I have no claim to make. I am quite content that you should settle the precedence among yourselves.’