Friday, June 30, 2006

Drowning in ARCS

I'm up to my eyeballs in Advance Reading Copies. Literally. I've stacked them up in teetering piles past my head, and we've got boxes more to go.
Now, as I'm a primarily used bookseller, I've often gotten the steely glare and snarky lecture about Advanced Reading Copies from publishing folks and new book people alike. They seem to think that I must be making a fortune on illicitly obtained, vastly marked-up Arcs. I've even been told that used bookselling is inherently dishonest.
Actually, used booksellers are scrupulously honest. For one thing, we are incredibly superstitious, and believe that Book Karma will come back to bite us in the ass if we rip someone off. For another thing, the used book world is small, inbred, and gossipy. Dishonest dealers get a bad reputation, very quickly.
I'm not even sure how the new book world thinks we end up with all these Arcs. The ones in my basement belong to my new-bookselling cohorts. Most of the Arcs you see in used bookstores have sold by reviewers, trying to make some space on their shelves. The rest? They come from underpaid and overworked new bookstore employees, who are usually being paid minimum wage with no benefits, working for people who would cheerfully replace them with robotic dogs if it was at all feasible. In stores like this, the Arcs pile up in little rooms, unread, until they are recycled (at best) or dumpstered (more likely). Sometimes I see triumphant gutterpunks come in with sacks of dumpster-dived Arcs, reclaimed from a new bookstore's trash.
That being said, I feel like it's important to clarify a couple of points. Used booksellers don't like Arcs. They're ugly. Often they have typos, screwy punctuation, or hideous grammatical errors. They have some limited use, as a general-stock used reading copy, but they really have very little collectible value. Oh I know, you can see Arcs on Ebay going for a billion dollars apiece, but Ebay is not used bookselling.
Real collectors, the kind who come in and prowl through the stacks, don't buy Arcs. For some reason, it just didn't catch on. Many years ago, a 'review copy' would have been a nice finished copy of a book, with a typewritten letter laid in. Sometimes it would have been printed prior to publication, and sometimes it was simply a first. Those sell. But in my experience, collectors would rather wait for the first edition - solid, dustjacketed, crisp - rather than buy an unlovely, precariously-bound Arc.
So, what to do with our stacks of Arcs? In other times and places, I've simply given them away to customers. They're meant to be read, after all. Then it occurred to me that I could do the same thing here.
Soon, we'll be listing the Arcs in our collection. We'll mark them at $o.oo, and simply charge shipping. We've got some good stuff, too. I hope they'll find good homes. And it's a hell of a lot better than sticking them in the recycle bin.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

First Post Jitters

Here goes nothing. Finally making my entry into the world of blogging after many months of hesitation and delay. I feel as if my first post should be something of great weight and moment, discoursing philosophically on the state of modern SF and literature. It is after all the FIRST post and FIRSTS are meant to be important. Instead I'll start with an illustrative anecdote regarding my reading tastes and sometimes pretentions.

I was at work when I noticed the latest hardcover release by a very popular genre writer being received. Continuing a frequent work rant of mine, I went off on the preponderance of "sexy vampire smut" today and how it seems to be taking over the world. (Well, at least the Horror and Romance sections of my bookstore.) I poked fun at the sepia toned near-BDSM cover photo and just ripped into the sheer ridiculous-ness of the plot (vampire vs. werewolf boyfriends complicated by possible pregnancy!) I probably even made some comments about the fans and readers of this certain author being nothing more than melancholy goth teens and frustrated ex-goth housewives. I can really get going sometimes when I'm on a rant.

Then, in nearly the same breath, I admited that I was currently reading a STAR WARS novel about BOBA FETT, perhaps the most fetishized character in one of the geekiest communities in all of modern SF culture. HA HAH!

So yes, a little bit of the pot calling the kettle black on my part (or is it the geek calling the dork a nerd?) But it's OK because my book was written by K. W. Jeter, a protege of Philip K. Dick, and therefore completely acceptable! ;)

How's that for a first post? Let the flaming begin!

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Life of the World to Come, by Kage Baker

A Prelude to this review:
Sarah (who wrote this review) and I are huge fans of Kage Baker's Company novels. We've read every one in the sequence and I've designated Sarah as the point-person for reviewing Baker's latest novels (which, pleasingly, are coming out at a regular pace, and are being reissued as we speak so newcomers can enjoy them all; the exception being Sky Coyote which is inexplicably still out-of-print at the moment.).

Though the majority of the novels can be read alone, these more recent novels bring together story threads subtly woven throughout the books and as such MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS: read the following review at your own risk, or better yet, read all the other books and then come back to this...

The Life of the World to Come (Tor, 2004) jumps right into the reunion of Mendoza and her once-again-reincarnated lover, whom astute readers will have already spotted as Alec Chesterfield. Some sections are taken directly from Black Projects, White Knights (Golden Gryphon), but these are interspersed with new sections that flesh out the story of Alec’s life, illustrating its similarities to—and vast differences from—the stories of Nicholas and Edward (Alec’s previous ‘manifestations’).

Alec is the most jarring of the three incarnations, mostly due to his slangy, oddly monosyllabic speech. Even to modern American ears he sounds dumb, especially compared to Nicholas’ delicious Elizabethan eloquence. Compounding this problem is the fact that the areas in which Alec is a genius are not explained in enough depth to make them seem as impressive. The ‘cyber-science’ especially comes off as too abstract, lacking some essential texture required to make it believable. While this is a nice change from the tech-term heavy sci-fi littering the planet, in which the author tries to impress you with their ability to do research (Clade springs to mind), more detail may have made the point more effective.

The future is Baker’s weakest setting, though she is, as always, witty, and her social satire is well-aimed. As a West Coaster I do find her militant-vegan-fitness-fanatic future people to be both oddly plausible and funny in a despairing sort of way, and the gradual dumbing down of the population also seems all too believable. I am of course, gratified at her idea that the future Celts, at least, held out for cream and whiskey. What she is getting at with all this is not a new idea—that the cyborgs have in fact become more ‘human’ than the humans who created them; in terms of human values, emotions, pursuits, and appreciation for the finer points of human culture. She does, however, make this point with more subtlety and effectiveness than most.

Her characters remain as alive and vibrant as ever, and that carries the bulk of the book. Satisfying, too, for anyone who has followed the saga, is Alec’s refusal to once again become a pawn of the Company. Baker hints at the workings of fate, as if there is possibly a divine—or at least cosmic—plan, a higher power at work, in the series of coincidences that bring Alec and Mendoza together, and keep him out of the clutches of the Company.

Baker wends her way though the story before hitting her stride in a fireworks finale ending which spectacularly resurrects some unlikely characters. Newly aware of their situation—of Mendoza’s role in their survival, and having seen enough of the machinations of the Company to get really pissed off—they combine to take on the entire organization, in a splendid fire and brimstone Frankenstein-esque sequence both comic and gripping. The conclusion is so well done that even the cliffhanger ending, which would ordinarily drive me crazy, seems worth it. --Sarah Keliher, 2005

Cheating: a slow-as-molasses html coder uses his blog to get the word out...

I mentioned Prescience before, the zine I've kept alive for over a decade in one form or another. It's part of the vision of FP, the review & commentary wing of this zany army.

Our web designer has built a site that we'll be able to maintain ourselves, and he's taught me some rudimentary html (read: cut-and-paste, see if it works right). And I plan to keep up with adding reviews and articles to the site.

Time, time gets away from me. So I've figured out a cheat, a hack if I may be so bold, to get the talented writers opinions out on da street, yo... uh...

In the subsequent blog entries you'll see articles posted on books and some other themes, along with the usual FP update. I hope you enjoy what we post, and will respond (even if you disagree with us-- this is after all the internet, and what good is it without some form of conflict, eh?).

What we're doing; moonlighting strangers who just met on the way...

Ok, so I just quoted a line from the TV show Moonlighting. Some of the junk stored in my head frightens me...

So, one of the things about FP (that's Fantastic Planet Books for all you newbies), is that Steve and Sarah and I work full-time at other bookstores. Financially we aren't able to leap off the cliff into the waiting arms of an SF&F-shaped destiny.

Yet.

So, the three of us meet up, nudge our plans forward, go back to our lives, our other jobs, and try and muster energy for FP (we love it, we really do, but sometimes...ugh.). We do keep connected with the publishing industry and most especially the SF&F publishers. It's their support we'll most need when we're finally settled and it's best to nurture those connections (besides, most of the editors in genre publishing are pretty damned awesome and supportive already...).

I'm in the odd position of maintaining the SF&F section of my current job; I pretty much created it out of a sludge heap of lousy buying practices back in the mid-'90s (I'm not mentioning my store's name; prudence yadda, yadda). So I'm faced with keeping the section running, watching for new titles and promoting them, getting books back in when needed, displaying, etc. But soon I'll need to hand that off to another person and it's going to be hard. That little corner of the store has been a part of my life (and obsessions) for more than 10 years now. I'm sure once FP is going, I'll still go back and visit. There are some good people there, people who'll do a great job maintaining it.

But hopefully not too great...

The heat of the night, progressing turtle-like.

Well, it's been almost two months since the last entry. I'm still finding it hard to remind myself to add to the blog--I've never been the greatest email person, and I've hardly touched my Livejournal (for proof: see.).
But it's important to keep up with the FP Blog, as it's a way of reminding ourselves (and our supporters) that this whole venture is worth it.

So, to summarize:

Fantastic Planet has been online for over a year now, a nascent website that slowly grew; we added reviews, a snazzy interface, a bunch of reviews and images from the pages of Prescience (a zine I started back in '96), and some hopeful comments about selling books online and in a bricks N mortar store.

As of about 3 months ago FP began selling books online at Biblio.com and Alibris. For a few weeks we had no action (part of the reason was that it was taking time to add the books manually); then we had our first sale (see previous post), quickly followed by another and then another. It's been steady; we average one sale every 2-3 days (that's pretty good for a small, small store). It warms our hearts that people want the books we have. We do scouting for more books when time permits, and the occasional hunt for an obscure book when someone requests it.

But that's not enough.

We need to move into the next phase and that's to sell new books.

See, in publishing, used bookstores aren't viewed very highly. It has something to do with the fact that a) the publisher is not getting a cut of each sale, and b) the author is not getting a cut. Fair point. But for us there were several factors in why we began with used books:

It's easy to go to a goodwill, or garage sale, whathaveyou, and find something we know will be worth something to somebody. We make a reasonable profit from it (but make sure it's very fair to the customer), and it helps us build what we need: capital.

We don't have some rich uncle or Microsoft millionaire bankrolling us, so for us to get account with the publishers and distributors we need: credit.
A small loan is the solution to that problem (which we're working on right now). We've been trying to figure out how much we need to get an initial inventory and rent for the first 6-9 months of a bricks N mortar space.

And this is where we've run into a conceptual roadblock. We don't have the money, and are worried that we won't get a loan big enough to do what we envision. But we're working on a temporary solution. We can get a pay-as-you-go account with Ingram, and have a secure server company handle our online sales for new books (and the used). Sure, we may not instantly have the complete selection we desire, but we have to start somewhere, right?

So we've trimmed down the initial vision to something manageable while we work out that big loan to start-up.

I hear Warren Buffett is giving billions to the Gates Foundation. I wonder if he may have some chump change to toss in the direction of FP. Anybody know his email?