Hugos 2016: Reactions to the Shortlist

Finalists for the 2016 Hugo Awards were released on Tuesday. It's something of an understatement to say that reactions have been mixed.

Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin sums up the anti-Puppy consensus nicely:
Those of us who hoped this year's massive turnout might give us something more palatable than last year were mistaken; the 2016 ballot and the 2015 ballot are pretty much a wash. The two editor's categories are much stronger than they were last year. Novel has some very fine and worthy choices (though my own favorite novels from last year are missing). Some talented young writers are up for the Campbell. On the other hand, Best Pro Artist is a joke, Short Story is if anything weaker than last year, and Best Related Work is a toxic swamp.
Thanks to Mr. Martin for stating his approval of the Campbell shortlist, which includes me (and more significantly, Andy Weir). Compliments from such a venerable wordsmith are greatly appreciated.

I wonder, though, what occasioned the visceral reaction against the finalists for Best Related Work?

2016 Hugos Best Related Work

I agree that this list evokes something that merits the description "toxic swamp". But it's not the works themselves.

A more balanced perspective
Breitbart's account, which was more sympathetic to the Puppies, helps to put the Hugo controversy in perspective:
...a number of...conservative and libertarian-leaning authors contended that a large chunk of Hugo voters voted on the basis of authors’ personal political beliefs rather than the quality of their writing. The Sad Puppies aimed to change that, by nominating authors on the basis of perceived quality rather than perceived politics. The Puppies have a particular opposition to “message fiction” — works that are primarily intended to convey a political message rather than tell a good story.
[Last] year, authors nominated by the Sad & Rabid Puppies campaigns swept several categories in the Hugo Awards, leading to outrage from progressive journalists and commentators. 
This year, the Sad and Rabid Puppies have done it again. Ten out of fifteen Hugo Award categories have been completely dominated by Puppy-endorsed nominees — double what the campaigns achieved in 2015. The Puppies have also secured three out of five nominations for Best Novel, three out of four nominations for Best Short-Form Dramatic Presentation, and three out of five nominations for Best Long-Form Editor.
In total, the Rabid Puppies swept six categories on their own, while a combination of Sad & Rabid puppy nominations swept a further four.
Despite the Sad Puppies' consistency regarding their aims, an anti-Puppy narrative persists.

“This is an attempt by various elements of the American right to regain the centre ground of SF from some perceived shift to the liberal left,” said Alastair Reynolds, whose work appeared on both the Sad and Rabid Puppies' lists.

Author John C. Wright, whose work earned a record number of Hugo nominations last year, demonstrates the incoherence of Reynolds' complaint:
Our motives were entirely clear, and perfectly obvious to anyone who reads science fiction for love of the genre: if our real motives had been other than what we said, then the voters attracted to us would have been attracted to our stated motives, not our allegedly real yet hidden ones, would not they have? Then the voters would have voted in line with our stated motives, and our real hidden ones would have been thwarted, right?
Former Hugo winner John Scalzi tried to downplay SP and RP's effectiveness at choosing the nominated works:
In these cases as in several others, the Puppies are running in front of an existing parade and claiming to lead it. Few who know the field or the Hugos would give the slates credit for highlighting works and authors already well-appreciated in the genre, many of which have appeared this year as finalists for other awards or on bestseller lists.
A claim to which Mr. Wright likewise prepared a response:
It is one of [those] statements that, even if true, makes no difference to the conclusion: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY or the work of Mr. Gaiman was not the normal, boring, trite, sick-minded politically correct crapola on burnt toast shoved down unwilling throats by a small cabal of well connected Tor authors.
The lie here is merely the pretense that our motives were other than our stated motives, so that by winning whom we wanted to win, it somehow does not count, because we really wanted someone to win other than the candidate whose works we supported.
The argument is so illogical, there is not even a Latin name for the fallacy, because no one in the Middle Ages was this stupid that there was any need to coin it: it is merely disjointed.

Darker implications
Critics who accuse the Rabid Puppies in particular of having motives besides rescuing SF from dull message fic are actually onto something. With their recommendations of Safe Space as Rape Room and The Story of Moira Greyland, RP also sought to kick over the petrified remnants of Fandom culture and expose what lies wriggling beneath.

Moira recounts [Warning - not for the faint of heart!]:
My mother was Marion Zimmer Bradley, and my father was Walter Breen. Between them, they wrote over 100 books: my mother wrote science fiction and fantasy (Mists of Avalon), and my father wrote books on numismatics: he was a coin expert.
What they did to me is a matter of unfortunate public record: suffice to say that both parents wanted me to be gay and were horrifed at my being female. My mother molested me from ages 3-12. The first time I remember my father doing anything especially violent to me I was five.
Sadly, Moira's story is far from the only instance of prominent figures in old SF Fandom perpetrating--or turning a blind eye toward--such abuse. It should go without saying that anyone involved in science fiction; any minimally ethical human being, would greet the exposure of this systemic rot with sober gratitude.

In his blog post highlighting the Best Related Work category, SF author Chuck Wendig offered this comment:

"That feels like what we have going here. We’ve got ticks in our culture. Latching on. Leeching blood. Staying hidden until they’re bloated up and by then, you’ve got a real problem."

I'd fully agree with Mr. Wendig's appraisal of the situation--if he were describing the pedophiles lurking within traditional Fandom as parasites. Absurdly, he applies that label to the folks who are working to unmask the abusers.
Of course, the mangy curs and distempered doggies also got their grimy jaws around the throat of the thing. Inside those nominations you’ll find some, ahh, real eye-openers. I won’t go into specifics — you either know what I’m talking about or you don’t. And if you don’t, just trust me when I say, some of those categories are a real diaper fire.
There’s a sickness here. We’re covered with ticks. We call them trolls, and they are, but that’s also a way to dismiss them — as if they’re just cantankerous outliers hiding under bridges. People say, “Don’t feed the trolls,” as if that’s ever worked. I remember in elementary school they told you to ignore bullies, too, and that never worked worth a good goddamn because they just came harder at you next time, pissed that you didn’t give them the time of day. You can’t ignore ticks, you can’t ignore tumors, and you can’t ignore trolls. Ignoring them means emboldening them.
Perhaps if Mr. Wendig and his ideological fellow travelers had been less concerned with thought-policing genre fiction and more concerned with policing the child molesters in their midst, the Rabid Puppies' trolling wouldn't have been necessary.

Incidentally, this is the same Chuck Wendig whose book Aftermath served as the canary in the coal mine for Star Wars' descent into PC propaganda. Yet he accuses his critics of misogyny while dismissing the testimony of a female abuse victim.

Star Wars: Aftermath

Call the Rabid, and even the Sad, Puppies trolls if you like. Just know that they stand for fun SFF stories with actual speculative elements, and against sycophants who demonstrably value the intellectual purity of their captive awards above the safety of the children in their care.

There is sickness in Fandom, Mr. Wendig--a sickness of the soul that abhors beauty, goodness, and truth; and a sickness of conscience that sacrifices the innocent for self-flattery.

Another thing you're right about: we'll keep coming at you harder. Until your gates come crashing down.

Follow me on Twitter: @BrianNiemeier


The 2016 Hugos: I Accept the Nomination

MidAmeriCon II, the 74th World Science Fiction Convention, received over 4,000 nominating ballots for this year's Hugo Awards, nearly doubling last year's record set by Sasquan. The complete list of Hugo finalists can be found here.

Congratulations to all of the nominees, especially Andy Weir, Kukuruyo, Jeffro Johnson, Razorfist, Jason Rennie, Larry Elmore, Toni Weisskopf, Jerry Pournelle, Neil Gaiman, Vox Day, Chuck Tingle, Stephen King, Brandon Sanderson, and Jim Butcher.

One category, though, has particular significance for me.

2016 Hugo Awards Campbell Nominees
The near-certainty of Andy Weir's triumph  will greatly dull the sting if I lose.

To all of the science fiction fans who selected the finalists for the 2016 Hugo Awards, especially my readers and Puppies of every description, I'm honored to make the following statement:

I accept the nomination for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Sincerest thanks to everyone who voted. Whatever the final outcome of this year's Hugo Awards, I will continue writing stories that put fun and readers first, in the superversive tradition.

For all you overachievers who'd like to get started reading ahead of the official Hugo packet, my works are available for purchase here.



Sci Phi Journal #3


JD Cowan Reviews Nethereal

From ...And Between the Wasteland and the Sky:

Nethereal by Brian Niemeier is a different kind of book. I'm not the most well-read in science fiction, but then, this isn't totally a science fiction book. It's not really fantasy, either. But then, it's also not horror. It's a mixture of all those genres as if they are the same thing. Genre boundaries are sort of an annoyance to me as it is, so reading a book that just does what it wants to do was a real treat.
Imagine if Abraham Merritt read Galactic Patrol and said "Pshaw! I can do that!" then while writing his space opera he read Dune and watched some classic anime and decided to throw those in too. Of course, he couldn't do any of that being that he died so long ago, but that's not my point. That's the closest I can come to describing what reading Nethereal is like.
Imagine a universe where space pirates descend into space hell accompanied by a strange band of rogues and misfits that might not all be what they seem. This hell is split into levels, each as strange as the last as our main characters begin to learn more and more that maybe this job was not only a bad idea, but a horrifying mistake. Oh, and they have to deal with horrifying monstrosities from the depths at every turn. Can't forget about those, can we?
The story follows a core group of four pirates: Jaren Peregrine, the captain of the pirates who has tunnel vision on whatever task he sets his mind to, and his second-in-command, Nakvin, a woman with a lot more to her than there may be, are the main characters. There is also Teg Cross, a hired mercenary who has as quick a sword arm as he does a mouth, and Deim, their apprentice steersman, a young man with ore passion than sense, who fill out the main cast quite well. There are other characters, but getting into them would probably spoil the story. Needless to say, you are always wondering just what each character is really playing at even when they're playing it straight.

This isn't just a puff piece, however. The reviewer takes the time to offer constructive criticism:

Now, for the negative points, of which there aren't many. The plot bogged down a bit in the middle and became a bit convoluted before finally straightening out for the last part of the book. I'm a bit of a slow reader, but I almost lost myself in the middle a few times. Some characters also sort of vanish then reappear, leaving you to wrack your brain to remember what they were doing when you last saw them hundreds of pages ago. The climax is also short considering it took almost 600 pages to get to it, as well.

Fair enough. It's bad form to argue with well-meant and honest criticism, so I'll simply inform readers that, as JD himself notes, he reviewed the book's first edition. The issues he mentions have been largely addressed in the second.

Where the author most succeeded, however, was the sense of dread and unease about the entire journey. Hell, of course, is not a pleasant place anyone would want to visit, but space hell is not even a place you want to think about. Demons and baals at every turn, mysterious and horrifying landscapes, even death isn't an escape from the torture, and those who revel in their basic instincts come to regret them soon enough. Though this is a space opera, it manages a bit of thought on basic morality along the way giving it a nice touch you wouldn't expect from such a story.
Of course, as I said, this is a space opera through and through. You have dramatic reveals, over the top fights and encounters, a story that twists as it goes, and an ending where everything (more or less) falls into place. Just don't go into it expecting unblessed ray guns and in-depth politics, but Workings and damnation instead and you're on the right track.
As a classic anime fan, I couldn't help but picture this as a 26 episode series by Studio Deen made way back in 1992 or so. This is not a criticism. That is not a feel anime can even get down anymore, but a point for the book in matching a feel and spirit that isn't really done today. I'm not sure if non-anime fans would get as much out of the Nethereal's style as I did, but that does help to make it totally unique and wrapped in with the world-building that Brian Niemeier sets out to accomplish. By the end, you just want a second season right away. Unlike that season 2 of Outlaw Star I've been waiting around fifteen years for, the Soul Cycle series already has a second book out, Soul Dancer, which I hope to get to eventually.

My comment: This review hits the mark dead center. JD has clearly been influenced by many of the same sources as me, because he nails the tone, mood, and style peculiar to late 80s/early 90s anime that inform Nethereal.

Which is now in its revised and expanded second edition, which you can buy here.


Nethereal Second Edition

Contra my prior announcement that Nethereal Second Ed. would be released on April 30, I'm bowing to popular demand and breaking my own street date.

That's right. The second, revised and expanded edition of my unconventional, never predictable, but always fun space opera is available now.

Nethereal 2nd ed.
Kindle version available now on Amazon

Don't worry, old-school bibliophiles. I didn't forget about you. There's also a classic dead tree version!

Nethereal 2nd ed. paperback
I just finished proofing it, so the paperback is currently only for sale at CreateSpace. But hey, I get paid more there.

Why am I releasing a new edition less than a year after the book's initial launch?

This isn't just a marketing stunt. I work for my readers. Though the fan response has been overwhelmingly positive, there's always room for improvement. Astute readers gave me a wealth of useful feedback, and the edits I've made reflect your suggestions.

Here's what you get from N2E:

  • Improved, higher visibility front cover
  • Spoiler-free back cover blurb
  • Handy list of major characters with short bios for ease of reference
  • Every typo you guys found? Corrected.
  • Subtle tweaks to the text that enhance narrative clarity and focus
  • Convenient link to Souldancer, Soul Cycle Book II (much like this one) at the end so you can dive right into the sequel
  • Added bonus: a bunch of stuff I can't remember!
As you can see, there are enough improvements to amply justify a new edition.

I can hear all the wonderful folks who already bought Nethereal asking, "What about me?" No worries, sugar lump. If you already own Nethereal 1st ed., just shoot me an email via the button on the right sidebar, and I'll upgrade you to the 2nd ed. eBook for free.

It's my way of saying thanks for everyone's support.

I'll give the incomparable Jeff Duntemann the last word. From his highly insightful review of Nethereal 1st ed., which still holds true:

There are starships, but these are not your father's starships. There are space pirates, but not the space pirates you were looking for. There is Hell, but it's not...quite...Dante's Hell. Magical firearms, trapped souls, epic space battles, startling images, touches of Persian dualism, wise-ass demigods, necromancers, a zombie chicken, and a marvelous swipe at the bloodthirsty 14th Century Bishop Henry Despenser of Norwich.
And this is the author's first novel. I'm hardly an expert, but I was extremely impressed.
What's key here is the richness of the author's creation. This isn't just an imagined future. Earth is nowhere to be seen, past or present. Brian has created an entire cosmos with its own rules, exotic physics, and even more exotic metaphysics. Half-sentient FTL starships are guided by telepathic pilots who are more partner than master--and can be eaten by the mysterious Wheel if they break the complex rules of steersmanship. The gulf between life and death that we experience here is paper-thin in this ancient cosmos long abandoned by its own gods. Half of your crew might actually be dead men--and you have to look close to tell which is which.
H/t to Jeff for providing many of the key suggestions that have made Nethereal even better. He's too modest, but Jeff's an expert in my book!

...a newly improved book that you can buy here.


The Dragon Awards on Geek Gab

On the latest episode of Geek Gab, Daddy Warpig and I discuss Dragon Con's newly announced SFF awards. Will the Dragons mean the end of the Hugos? Will the CHORFs invade and converge Dragon Con? More importantly, is my work eligible?

Listen in and find out!

Bonus: this week's Geek Gab listeners also get the inside edge on imminent Soul Cycle developments, including a forthcoming special offer. Don't miss out!


Is Galaxy Quest Superversive?

Galaxy Quest
The crew of the Protector, about to give the Enterprise crew a run for their money--and have more fun while they're at it.
Yesterday I revisited the late 90s cult classic Galaxy Quest. Not only is it one of my favorite comedies, it easily stands among my favorite SF films and is just plain one of my all-time favorite movies.

OK, I'm laying my cards on the table. In addition to the accolades I already heaped on it, Galaxy Quest is the best Star Trek movie. Sure, it's an homage that parodies Trek in much the same way that Spaceballs riffed on Star Wars (of which it is the fourth best film, but that's another post), but Galaxy Quest succeeds where even Mel Brooks failed. It beat its source material at its own game.

Don't take my word for it. Fans at a major Star Trek convention ranked Galaxy Quest the seventh best film in the series, and that was only because of backroom politicking that bumped Quest down from its starting position in second place. Key members of the creative team who've worked on Star Trek movies since The Voyage Home declared that it deserved to be #1.

A twist on a familiar story
For those who are unfamiliar with Galaxy Quest, shame on you! Go watch it right now.



For those who are at work or school or prison or somewhere like North Korea that won't let you stream videos, Galaxy Quest follows a simple yet ingenious premise.

NOTE: this movie is almost twenty years old, so my spoiler filter is off.

The washed-up stars of a 70s SF TV show, forced to subsist on convention signings and ribbon cuttings since the program's cancellation, get much more than they bargained for when what they mistake for another promo gig turns out to be the real thing.

Facing genocide, an alien race has turned to "Historical Documents" from earth, i.e. television transmissions, for guidance--especially old episodes of Galaxy Quest. They lovingly reproduce the series' iconic ship down to the last bolt and dab of paint; then enlist the original crew to lead them in battle.

Galaxy Quest NSEA Protector
The most accurate fan prop ever! Seriously, the visuals alone tell you how well the filmmakers understand the subject matter.
Unfortunately, the "crew" don't have their act together--figuratively or literally.

Galaxy Quest Crew
The pictorial definition of "fish out of water".
Besides the shock of finding themselves embroiled in a real interstellar war, the actors must confront the interpersonal grudges and rivalries that have alienated them from each other as they're thrust back into their old roles. It's the command performance of a lifetime, with stakes far higher than bad ratings.

A worthy homage
In design and execution, Galaxy Quest not only meets the standard set by Star Trek, but sometimes surpasses it. Quest is like the rare cover version of a song that draws out the original's latent potential and takes it to the next level.

Now imagine that the cover song is by "Weird Al" Yankovic, and the metaphor is complete. Don't let the comedy distract you from the fact that the artist is a bona fide genius.

Why does Galaxy Quest deserve such praise? The simplest reason is that it's a sci-fi, parody, ensemble cast, character-driven, comedy/adventure film that works on each and every one of those levels.

First of all, comedy is widely and correctly understood as the hardest genre to pull off properly. Galaxy Quest is indeed a sterling comedy. Rare among contemporary films in this genre, it doesn't stoop to lazy one-liners or crude slapstick for cheap laughs. Instead, it takes the high road of crafting situational humor based on solidly established characters and how they react to their strange circumstances.

NB: critics lament how modern comedies have largely replaced actual jokes with glib pop culture references. Ironically, Galaxy Quest is one of the few movies that could've gotten away with that gimmick. Yet its makers exercised admirable restraint in weaving SF tropes into the story subtly and organically through the actors' performances.

Alexander Dane: Typecast Thespian archetype. Alan Rickman's delivery says it all. 

The near-subliminal references even extend to the movie's visual design.

Galaxy Quest Protector
Yes. The NSEA Protector is a comm badge from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
After soaring over the highest hurdle, Galaxy Quest goes for the gold in the sci-fi, space opera, and characterization categories. Though the science is extra squishy (just how I like it), the movie more than compensates by adding new speculative elements that are just as satisfying as their Trek analogs.

The digital conveyor, FTL flight via black holes (later explored seriously by Interstellar), and the Omega 13 device are just some of the masterful conceits that establish Quests's own consistent mythos.

One added benefit of rewatching the film was realizing just how gorgeous it is. The conceptual and technical design; even the costumes, are on par with the finer Trek movies while having a pleasing aesthetic all their own.

I was also surprised by how the movie's visuals influenced the descriptions in my own writing. Though I didn't realize it at the time, the bridge of the Protector clearly inspired the wheelhouse of the Serapis from Nethereal.

Not the Lovecraftian ship in front; the one way off in the background.
The special effects only lose a few points because some of the CG looks a little outdated now, but it still beats any Syfy Channel original movie.

In the action department, Galaxy Quest largely departs from the submarine warfare style of most Trek installments and depicts pulpier, though honestly more exciting, space battles. The character-level gun play and fisticuffs retain comedic elements while portraying deadly consequences, sometimes in direct contrast to the TV show's camp.

Alexander at the crux of his character arc. Same line; vastly different context and significance.

But is it superversive?
Galaxy Quest is a criminally underrated comedy and sci-fi masterpiece. But solid craftsmanship alone doesn't qualify a work of art as superversive.

As I've noted before, superversive fiction entails a particular commitment to storytelling in the service of beauty, goodness, and truth. Tom Simon gives the definitive explanation.

"...[C]ourage is the essential quality of a superversive story: not the dumb, dull fortitude that passively endures in the face of suffering, but the courage that allows the character to take action – to risk becoming a hero."

That right there is the standard of a superversive tale. Does Galaxy Quest rise to it?

Damn straight it does
At the movie's low point, Jason Nesmith (aptly portrayed by Tim Allen) must confess to the alien leader Mathesar that he and his "crew" are not what the aliens believed. They are simple actors pretending to be space explorers on sets made of plywood, tinfoil, and Christmas lights.

Galaxy Quest Jason and Mathesar
Yes, Mathesar, there IS a Santa Claus.
Mathesar's race--the Thermians--are perfect examples of the purely material beings described by master SF author John C. Wright. Mathesar states that his people lacked transcendent beliefs, and that they interpreted all earth television broadcasts as historical documentaries.

This is strong evidence that the Thermians are purely material--or at least materialistic--beings with no spiritual dimension to their existence, who as such have no longing for a reality above and beyond the mundane world.

Wright convincingly reasons that sapient beings who are fully "at home" in the material world would have no need for or concept of fiction. Their libraries would have only textbooks and newspapers; not pulp magazines and novels. The Thermians therefore see no difference between fiction and lies.

The interactions between guileless Thermians and duplicitous humans brings about one of the movie's core moral themes: what value, if any, does fiction have? When asked why humans would go to the considerable effort and expense of creating such elaborate charades, Nesmith admits to Mathesar that he doesn't know. He makes halfhearted mention of entertainment, but it's clear that he's never thought through the basis of his craft.

It is here, in the last act, that Galaxy Quest goes from being a workmanlike and thoroughly enjoyable parody to a work of\superversive genius.

The cast of the Galaxy Quest TV show start the movie as petty, frustrated characters, depressed by their inability to be who their talents and dispositions call them to be. They're suddenly given a final, all-or-nothing chance to redeem themselves.

Galaxy Quest Jason Nesmith
Pictorial definition of "unlikely hero"
The crew of actors are given multiple chances throughout the film to escape the conflict and return home to their old lives. Each time, they decide to stay, even after learning that they're in mortal danger. Jason and his crew don't just suffer adversity with patience. They willingly accept terrible risks for the sake of practical strangers from a distant world.

Even more impressive, Galaxy Quest answers its thematic question about the value of art; not through dialog, but through the characters' actions. Traditionally, protagonists in mistaken identity plots prevail by either tapping into hidden strengths, or by leveraging their native abilities.

The cast of Galaxy Quest do both--employing their acting chops to overcome challenges while growing into their fictional roles for real. By the end of the movie, Tony Shalhoub's character really is the Protector's chief engineer. Reluctant pilot Tommy flies her with confidence and skill. Jason is established as the ship's master and a leader of men.

Yet it's the final touch that cements this film as a superversive triumph. The human crew of the Protector have defeated their adversary and saved the Thermian race. At this point, a lesser story would have ended with the aliens gaining knowledge of fiction and losing some of their innocence, possibly with a trite speech about faking it until you make it or the inspirational value of noble lies.

Instead, the Thermians are convinced that Nesmith's confession was itself a ruse, and their faith in the "Historical Documents" is fully restored.

Now, I anticipate criticism on the grounds that our heroes leave the Thermians in ignorance. Isn't the bitterest truth preferable to the sweetest lie?

To which I reply that anyone making such an objection is equivocating. Equating fiction with deceit is the Thermians' mistake, made because they're fundamentally blind to the difference. Trying to distinguish between a lie told with malice and a story told in service of the truth is a Sisyphean task where Thermians are concerned, and no futile task is morally obligatory.

And because we, the audience, are not Thermians, we can see how Galaxy Quest upholds the wonder and beauty of space exploration, the good of heroic virtue, and the truth that the value of good fiction transcends the world of base matter.

Update: in a glorious instance of life imitating art imitating life, Amazon has had a new Galaxy Quest series in the works. Production has been put on hold following the incomparable Alan Rickman's tragic death. Here's hoping a satisfactory yet respectful way can be found to complete the project.


A Defense of Big Publishing?

Sci Phi Journal editor, 2015 Hugo nominee, and 2016 Hugo contender Jason Rennie raises some valid questions about my previous post on how big NY publishers are killing the traditional publishing industry.

Hi Brian, 
Just a thought (and a defense that might be offered so hopefully worth considering). 
Big 5 publishers make up a small and diminishing number of sales relative to indie publishing. 
Alright, the raw numbers say that. 
But, if big 5 publishers produce 50 books a year, and indies produce 50 bajillion, then all things considered, based on the shelf space occupied you would expect indies to sell better than big 5 and the graphs treat all books sales as "1 sale" without correcting for the price of the book. It is harder to sell a $15 ebook than a 99c one, but at the same time, different people buy them for different reasons. 99c is a throw away price. 
Do people come back to the 99c author and buy the sequels? 
Is the market shrinking, growing or holding steady? If it is growing, then the big 5 could be doing "About the same" while indies are picking up the new authors. 
Are the big 5 authors earning out their advances? That is the real question to find the answer too. 
Also, how do indies do at the higher price range? 
None of this should be considered a defense of the big 5, but there might be explanations for the apparently tanking sales that aren't actually tanking, even though that is the conventional wisdom from the figures. 
And the conventional wisdom might be right, they could be circling the drain and their ideological bias could be a huge part of it. But perhaps there is another explanation. 

Jason, being a philosophical and fair-minded gentleman, poses incisive and pertinent questions about the current status of publishing. I shall do my best to answer in kind.

Jason Rennie: But, if big 5 publishers produce 50 books a year, and indies produce 50 bajillion, then all things considered, based on the shelf space occupied you would expect indies to sell better than big 5...

Brian Niemeier: The concept of  "shelf space" is meaningless in digital sales. Shelf inches are definitely a concern in print publishing, where the amount of bookstore real estate devoted to an author's book is a reliable measure of success.

The eBook market isn't just in a different ballpark. It's a whole different sport. In a world of unlimited shelf space, discoverability is what drives sales. So one could just as validly argue the reverse proposition--that the Big Five's superior marketing money, power, and reach should give them an insurmountable sales lead over the masses of obscure self-published authors with a fraction of the resources and no representation.

And you know what? The Big Five did outsell indie authors until rather recently. See this post I wrote about how the Big Five and indie authors have switched places in terms of Kindle Store market share in the past two years, and check out the Author Earnings figures.

JR: It is harder to sell a $15 ebook than a 99c one...

BN: Yes, exactly. And the Big Five know this. Yet they insist on selling eBooks for $15.00, or even more.

seveneves $1799
Attention, Neal Stephenson fans: you are being had.
I've written about eBook pricing on more than one occasion. For those who are in a hurry, here's the upshot:

  • Optimal eBook pricing (highest profit for authors and publishers) falls between $2.99 and $9.99. That's why Amazon, the folks with the best eBook sales data, reward books priced in this range with double the royalty rate.
  • NY publishers know that pricing eBooks in this range maximizes their earnings, because Amazon told them so during the Hachette dispute.
  • The fact that the Big Five ignore Amazon's advice and knowingly sell eBooks at inflated prices means that they're not interested in maximizing earnings for themselves and their authors.
  • Instead, big publishers are jacking up the prices of their eBooks to artificially slow the eBook market and protect their monopoly on paper distribution.
  • Thus screwing authors and readers. 

JR: ...different people buy them for different reasons. 99c is a throw away price.

BN: According to my research, readers who buy $15.00 eBooks fall into two categories: 1) die hard fans who are willing to pay a premium for their favorite author's work; 2) eBook consumers making uninformed decisions.

Thankfully, the second group is rapidly shrinking.

And "throw away price" is a rather loaded term. Authors price eBooks at $0.99 for many reasons. Sure, it can be a throwaway impulse buy price. But it's also a promotional price or even a regular everyday price that earns some writers decent money.

I've offered Nethereal for $0.99 as an experiment before, and it coincided with a sales boost that continued long after the eBook returned to its regular price.

In my experience, Larry's rule about free applies to $0.99: if you're gonna do it, have a plan.

JR: Do people come back to the 99c author and buy the sequels?

BN: That depends on the book, particularly on whether it's good or not :)

Again, in my own limited experience, the answer is yes.

JR: Is the market shrinking, growing or holding steady?

BN: According to Amazon themselves, the eBook market is growing.

JR: If it is growing, then the big 5 could be doing "About the same" while indies are picking up the new authors.

BN: You're right that such a scenario could be the case. But Publishers Weekly and Nielsen BookScan reports say that the Big Five's eBook sales are slowing.

At the same time, I'm convinced that your theory about indie picking up new authors is correct.

JR: Are the big 5 authors earning out their advances? That is the real question...

BN: It absolutely is! And the answer I've received from every source--in this case I'll cite the New York Times--is a resounding No.

All levity aside, the consensus among authors, editors, agents, and publishers I've researched is that fewer than half of all traditionally published books earn out their advances. (Interesting side note: among the least likely books to earn out are blockbuster titles by big name authors who get seven figure advances. Most A-list writer's careers are supported on the backs of numerous profitable mid-listers.)

JR: Also, how do indies do at the higher price range?

BN: To be honest, I haven't given that question much thought, since my focus is on giving my readers the best value I can.

But it's a just question, so I'll give it my best shot.

The only example I have ready at hand of an indie author who sells at the higher end of the optimal eBook pricing spectrum is Mike Cernovich.

His flagship title, Gorilla Mindset, sells for $9.99 in eBook format. It's an apples and oranges comparison to genre books, though, since Mike writes nonfiction. He does meet the criteria of a self-published author who does well at a higher price point, since so far he's sold around 15,000 copies.

This example relates to my comments on $0.99 vs. $15.00 eBooks. How much readers will pay depends largely on the strength of the author's brand, whether that author is traditionally or self-published, and Mike's brand is incredibly strong.

Thanks to Jason Rennie for taking the time to basically edit my earlier post for free. He brought up some highly relevant questions.

While statistics can certainly lie, the weight of the available evidence convinces me that the traditional publishing model as practiced by the Big Five is dying. There are several reasons for their decline.

  • The paradigm shift in media from print to eBooks has undermined the Big Five's traditional business model, which relied on dominance over paper distribution.
  • This shift is being accelerated by NY publishers' monolithic ideological bias.
  • Artificially inflated eBook pricing intended to protect the Big Five's lock on print is only driving more readers and authors toward indie.
  • Most trad publishers' archaic business practices, including unconscionably low royalties, paying authors only twice a year, lack of accounting transparency, a strange attachment to Manhattan offices with outrageous rents, reliance on brick and mortar stores, etc. are keeping them from adapting to the new market.

I could go on counting the Big Five's sins, like the devolution of editorial responsibility from acquisitions editors to editorial interns to agents, but the point should be clear by now.

NY publishers stand guilty of dereliction of their duty as cultural custodians. They've helped to degrade the quality of popular fiction and have made it fiendishly difficult for all but a few favored outliers to make a decent living as a writer.

Indie offers hope of emerging as an equalizer, but right now the sage advice offered to traditional authors applies to self-publishers as well: don't quit your day job.