Saturday, January 19, 2013

2012: The Year in Review (Part 3)

...continued from Part Two...

Otogu Speaks
It is said that somewhere in the Far East, in the mist-shrouded K'themai Isles, there stands a great temple, built by the now-vanished K'bab peoples and dedicated to Otogu the Insatiable, Devourer of Days...
If you've been hanging around any of my blogs in the past few years, you probably know that Otogu the Insatiable began life as a mere acronym—OTOGU—that I got in the habit of using whenever I needed to explain why I wasn't blogging this week. It meant simply that work on fun things had been interrupted by Other Things Of Greater Urgency, and as such was an outgrowth of my First Rule, which I've stated in many ways over the years but usually put something like this:
The First Rule of Being a Professional Writer is:
Paying work on deadline always takes priority.
A few of you might even have heard me cite the Zero Rule, which states simply that the needs of your family always come first, even before the demands of the First Rule.

The First Rule in Action

It's common for writers to fantasize about someday getting their Big Break. When it happens, they imagine they'll quit their day jobs and forever after do nothing but be brilliantly literary, 24x7, for the rest of their days.

Me? Been there, done that. And after having been in the position where my ability to make the house payment hinged on whether the guy from Simon & Schuster was telling the truth this time when he said the check was in the mail, all I can say is: never again.

Unlike most writers, I actually like my day job. Some days I even love it. I'm proud of the work we do and the things we build, and grateful for all the help and support the company has given me and my family during the Zero Rule events of recent years.

Still, Otogu dished up more than the usual share of work-related First Rule situations in 2012, and when DARPA tells you they're sending some people over to see what you've been doing with some millions of their R&D dollars, you drop everything and give them your undivided attention, for as long as they want it.

Which definitely did chew up some significant time in 2012.

The First Rule (Modified): The 2012 Philip K. Dick Memorial Award

Given everything else that was already going on in my life, it was probably an idiotic act of hubris on my part to accept being named to the 2012 Philip K. Dick Memorial Award jury last March. As a past winner of the award, though, I felt an obligation to "pay it forward."

Ten months and 100+ novels later, I feel confident that that debt is now paid in full, at loan shark's interest rates and with an extra pound of flesh and some fries on the side. You can see the list of finalists here, but beyond that, I am sworn to secrecy until after Norwescon 36.

The Zero Rule

Most of you already know about my big Zero Rule situation. (If you don't, go back and read Part 2.) There were others as well: for example, in October my mother had a serious medical emergency, which put her in the hospital for a month and then opened up a whole new series of elder care issues that we're still in the process of solving.

Not all Zero Rule situations are bad. Some are delightful, and the highlight of the year was the day my youngest daughter married her handsome young lieutenant. They make a wonderful couple together, and if Fate is kind, I'll be meeting my first grandchild sometime later this year.

This, in case you're curious, is the stage of life that I am at.

Many years ago, at some now-forgotten sci-fi con, I ended up sitting in the hotel bar with a bunch of my peers, listening to them swap divorce horror stories. After awhile the topic turned to the mystery of just why the writing life is so toxic to marriages, and as I listened to them talk, it began to dawn on me that they had it all backwards. It isn't that being a writer is toxic to marriage. It's that each of them had, for the sake of his or her writing career, made the value judgment that it was more important for them to be in the hotel bar at some forgettable sci-fi con than at home with their spouses and children. The men, especially, had decided—by default, if not by conscious choice—that it was perfectly acceptable for them to let their children be raised by their ex-wife's next husband.

That was when I began to realize: perhaps these people weren't my peers after all.

So, in the copious spare time left over after all that...

For us, 2012 was a year full of valuable learning experiences. (As in, "Oh God no, not another valuable learning experience!")

We learned that our original lean-staffing model was hopelessly inadequate, and that we needed to recruit a lot of extra help. We learned that the half-life of a slush pile reader is about a hundred stories, and after that they either burn out or need a very long rest. We learned that we didn't need to worry about receiving enough stories; rather, we needed to fight writers off with a stick. We learned that custom covers are beautiful and everyone loves them, but they're also budget-busters—and worse, sometimes schedule-destroyers, when you plan an entire issue around a specific cover story and then the artist fails to deliver. We learned not to pay artists in advance. (Somehow that one seems kind of obvious in hindsight.)

We learned that our original email service wasn't up to the volume of traffic we were generating, and ultimately ended up changing not just email services but ISPs and broadband providers as well. We learned how to change the process of beginning with raw submission files and ending up with a bug-free e-book from being something mysterious and magical to being a documented and repeatable procedure, which took us until August, but once we finally had it cooked down to a procedure it yielded dramatic gains in our ability to produce and release books. In September we cut over to a new server dedicated solely to handling submissions; we're still finding stories that supposedly were moved to the new server then but in actuality weren't. To all the authors affected: Sorry!

We learned that the publishing world is full of succubi and incubi who will promise to do all sorts of wonderful things for your sales and cash flow, if only you make a few small changes to what you're doing: more of these sorts of stories and fewer of those; more stories by these writers and fewer by those; tilt your editorial stance just a little this way to appeal more to this religious doctrine or that political belief. In the end, we rediscovered the wisdom that Jon David put into the mouths of the mice in "We Talk Like Gods:"

We just want to tell stories.

We learned that splatter and slasher movies have a huge fan base, and far too many self-identified horror submissions are not so much spine-chilling as stomach-turning. We learned that a significant portion of the submissions we receive are instantly and obviously rejects, either because of the author's amateurish writing skills or because of his (mostly his; rarely her) complete contempt for the concept of guidelines. We learned that hard science fiction written by someone who actually understands science is a very rare bird indeed.

We learned—and relearned, and learned yet again—that the critical factor limiting the growth of STUPEFYING STORIES is the amount of time that I have to put into it, and most of the things we tried to do in 2012 to change that didn't really reduce my workload, they just changed what I was doing from being something fun and interesting to being something irksome and managerial. We learned that 40- to 45K words is a comfortable size for the kind of book we want to produce, and that STUPEFYING STORIES sells best when we have a new one ready for release promptly on the first day of each and every month. We learned how to hit that target consistently—

But we also learned that to do that, and release novels, and release theme-issue specials, was just slightly beyond the realm of what was realistically possible for us at this time.

Right up until mid-December, we still believed we could do it. We had five books in various stages of production, all of which we were still busting chops to get out the door before the end of the year. Then one day—the 20th, I believe—we stopped short, looked at each other, and said, "This is nuts. If we keep going at this pace, we'll burn out.

"We need to make some changes around here."

...Tomorrow: the exciting conclusion(s)!...


GuyStewart said...

I guess this explains why I haven't gotten any slush packets lately...

Thomas H Pugh said...

Now I'm all excited to hear what the new schedule is going to be....