Friday, 12 September 2014

A publishing deal with Tickety Boo Press

As the incredibly subtle title may have revealed, I've got one of those publishing deal thingummyjigs with Tickety Boo Press.

In addition to the currently self-published Sir Edric's Temple, Sir Edric's Treasure (the second instalment in The Adventures of Sir Edric) will be released by Tickety Boo at some time in the future.

The books will be sold separately rather than bundled, so if you were one of the wise fellows or ladies who bought Temple already you won't have to fork out for it a second time just so you can read Treasure.

No ETA for release. I'm hoping it'll be sometime next year. The basic text for both is done, though small changes are likely (I shall not be adding the "That's about as tempting a prospect as a handjob from Edward Scissorhands" joke, though. Just too anachronistic).

So, thanks to Tickety Boo for the opportunity, to my beta readers for pointing out the many flaws in my writing, and, most of all the readers, who will hopefully buy Temple and Treasure in enormous numbers to help me walk a little further along the road from struggling artist to obscenely successful writer.


This was originally posted on my site, at

Thursday, 4 September 2014

How long can a state survive?

With the Scottish referendum looming, and as I near the end of re-reading John Julius Norwich’s excellent three part history of Byzantium, I was wondering how long a state can survive.

It’s an interesting question in the real world, and also for fantasy, where countries seem to often exist for X thousand (or even X tens of thousands) years, which seems a shade excessive.

The oldest coherent political structures in Europe are England and France. Using the longest, most generously vague measures, they’re about 15 centuries old. Countries which sound ancient, such as Germany and Italy, are actually surprisingly recent (both less than two centuries old). However, from the Act of Union the UK is just over three centuries old, and France has altered (in boundary terms) beyond all recognition, growing a fair bit and doing its best to establish the French identity as the cost of Bretons, Gascons and so forth. It was, of course, conquered last century by the Germans, and its present constitution began in 1958.

China is sometimes considered to have effectively been founded by Qin Shi Huangdi in about 200BC. One of the problems with trying to assert how old a country might be is whether or not substantial political/border changes mark a new beginning (in China’s case, the Communist party coming to power). A clever chap elsewhere on the internet suggested 1,000 years or so for China’s age, based on current borders established by Kublai Khan (although the Song dynasty was quite a bit smaller).

The first Roman ‘Empire’ (as kingdom, republic and only then empire) lasted for about 12 centuries (or just over five if we strictly take the Imperial period as one nation). The Eastern Roman Empire (or Byzantine Empire) lasted a little over 11. The latter fell entirely due to military reasons (the city was taken by storm after its hitherto invincible land walls were assaulted by cannons). The former fell due to a combination of continual infighting, political instability and military weakness.

It’s worth also, briefly, concentrating on just how mighty the Western and Eastern Roman Empires were. At its height, the Roman Empire (then singular) held the entire coastline of the Mediterranean in its grip. It stretched from partway into Scotland down to the deserts of Africa, from the Atlantic Ocean to Jerusalem. The Eastern Empire lacked, almost always, quite the aggression and militarism of the Western, but it had the perfect city from which to rule, as Byzantium’s famed Land Walls were invincible excepting only an earthquake and, at least, the advent of truly powerful cannons. (It’s also worth mentioning Rome fell with a whimper, whereas Constantine Dragases, the last Byzantine Emperor, was killed heroically fighting to protect his doomed city).

Turning to fantasy, it’s not uncommon to have states be thousands of years old. But this is a great rarity (depending how you consider states to change, with borders and substantial political alterations, you could make a case for almost no country in the world being so old, possibly excepting Japan).

Consider also how we view our own history. WWI seems a long way off, but it’s just over a century ago that it started. WWII has a much stronger sense in the public consciousness, but it’s still within living memory, and was an unusual war in that the whole world was at risk from an evil lunatic.

Two centuries does not sound long. But it’s just over a little more than that which saw America gain independence.

A thousand years ago (1014) -
England was a Saxon kingdom, to be conquered half a century later by William the Bastard
Byzantium was the most powerful country in the world, led by the arse-kicking (but very poor at succession-planning) Basil II
Jerusalem had been in Muslim hands for about four centuries (it would be about 80 years before the First Crusade surprised everyone by recapturing it)
Spain was mostly in Muslim hands
Italy was becoming a collection of powerful city-states
The Normans invaded southern Italy (they would go on to create the Kingdom of Sicily, including the island and much of southern Italy as well)

In short, we would recognise a few names but the whole world was very different. The odd nation might last half a millennium, and a rare one might make it to a thousand years, but the world isn’t some sort of static artefact that remains more or less unchanged. In the last century we’ve seen the collapse the British, Austro-Hungarian and German Empires, the downfall of Imperial Russia, the collapse of Imperial China and astonishing economic rebirth of Communist China, and the end of the Ottoman Empire.

It’s nice to think we live in a stable world. But we don’t. And if you’re trying to write a more realistic type of fantasy, it’s worth considering just how much borders change, and how short-lived countries can be.

In 2014, the UK’s death knell may be sounded. For some, who identify solely as English, Welsh, Northern Irish or Scottish, it will be of little emotional impact. For others, who see themselves solely or primarily as British, it may be heart-breaking.


Friday, 22 August 2014

Subscription services – good or evil?

Technology has driven huge changes in the way that we purchase and use media. Subscription services have been hugely successful for films, to the point of driving Blockbuster into extinction. Videogames are now dipping their toe into the waters of subscription, with the PS4 and EA having their own models (interesting because the EA deal isn’t available on the PS4, and we’re seeing the console manufacturers themselves and individual [albeit very large] studios trying their hand at it).

It’s worth mentioning that certain new technological developments seem very popular (Photo Mode in the Remastered version of The Last Of Us, and easy screenshots/video capture on the new consoles) whereas others (always on internet, Kinect) were derided so much they were dropped or made optional.

Now subscription services are coming to books.

Since e-readers and superior screens first came out an industry which was almost unchanged (from a consumer perspective) since the first printing presses has undergone substantial change. Books can now be purchased for less via the internet, and sometimes for free.

However, e-books have presented a substantial challenge to publishers, and traditional bookstores have had to try and deal with this whilst at the same time competing with the behemoth that is Amazon.

Authors have never had it so easy when it comes to getting published (you can, almost literally, do it yourself). However, getting noticed has perhaps never been harder, because there are so many new authors each individual is a small drop in an ever larger ocean.

Despite publishing my own stuff (and hopefully getting some traditionally published work out there soon), I am immensely old-fashioned. I don’t even own a mobile phone, and think DLC is the work of Satan.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that I’m worried about subscription services. The rate of remuneration for authors is a serious concern, and how it will affect publishers. Will we see individual publishers setting up their own services (akin to EA in videogames)? Will some content (perhaps short stories) become available only via subscription?

Consumer behaviour will be critical to the success or failure of any model. The pricing of a subscription (probably annual, given a monthly approach would only be of use to voracious readers) will be a major factor, but there’s the rub. If the fee is low, how can authors expect to make more than a pittance? If the fee is high, then people will opt to buy individual books because it’ll work out cheaper.

Things are already difficult for smaller publishers and new authors, and if the ‘big boys’ end up dominating a new subscription-based landscape then it could become a gated community. A decade or two ago agents and publishers were gatekeepers, deciding who was worthy and unworthy to be published. We can argue the toss about whether that was better than the self-publishing world we now have, but things have changed.

If major publishers and/or retailers start pushing for subscription in various ways (such as hiking the prices of their books so the subscription fee looks relatively more reasonable, or making later series instalments available only via subscription) then readers may stop scouring virtual bookshelves for individual books they want and instead opt for one or two subscriptions.

It just feels inherently wrong, to me. If someone writes a book you like, buy it, and they get some money (the retailer and agent/publisher also taking a slice). The seller, creator and middlemen all get a slice of the cake. If retailers and publishers shift to subscription I feel the author’s slice will become smaller.

And the harder it is for authors to make any money, the less likely it is we’ll have more good writers.

Maybe I’m wrong, and my instinctive distrust of changes in this area is just my spidey sense tingling for no good reason. But right now, I’m suspicious.


Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Succession Matters

Marcus Aurelius is often held up as an example of a great emperor, the last in the Golden Age of Imperial Rome which began with Nerva and included Trajan, Hadrian and Antoninus Pius. Similarly, Basil II was perhaps the single most forceful emperor in Byzantine history and, after an initial defeat, accomplished innumerable military successes.

Yet both were responsible in large part for the decline and ultimate fall of their respective empires.

Succession is a critical issue in the ancient and medieval worlds. It wasn’t a problem unique to the Roman Empires. Caliphates and Sultanates often descended into brief civil wars over succession as well.

The Golden Age saw emperor after emperor nominate his own successor. During this prolonged period of prosperity for the Empire men of worth were promoted, and the peace (for Rome, at least) enabled a strong class of loyal and successful men to build up.

Marcus Aurelius buggered it up on a permanent basis. His first co-emperor was Lucius Verus. Verus wasn’t especially bad, a bit of a boozy fellow but not a vicious lunatic. Verus died, and Marcus Aurelius then named as his successor his son, Commodus (made famous by the excellent film Gladiator). The Commodus of reality was not that different to that of the film (probably a bit bloodthirstier and more competent as a warrior, actually). He killed a significant number of senators who should have been serving the Empire, and was so bad he ended up being assassinated, and replaced by a short-lived successor who was toppled by the Praetorian Guard.

From that point on the imperial seat became the plaything of the army, to a greater or lesser extent. No period of imperial adoption recurred, and the Empire began a steady spiral of decline, occasionally delayed and only once truly reversed (with the excellent Danubian general-emperors such as the Gothic Claudius and Aurelian), but that was a brief respite.

Basil II’s case is a little odder. He had been officially emperor for a long time before he really took on the job, as a number of successful generals seized the throne but also shared it with him (they ran the Byzantine Empire but, slightly unusually, did nothing to harm the ‘official’ imperial family, which was Basil and his younger brother Constantine).

Basil never married or had any children. He may have been gay or simply disinterested (whilst unusual, something like 1% of people are asexual). His brother was technically co-emperor but was happy to spend his time in luxury whilst Basil actually ran things, and he also had several nieces to guarantee the family line would continue (worth pointing out the Macedonian Dynasty, of which he was a member, had been going for over a century at this point).

It would have been better if he had had children, and his brother had not. When Basil died, his brother took the reins and proved seriously inept. The shortness of his reign did limit the damage he could do, but Basil’s niece, Zoe, ended up having various marriages to those who aspired to the throne, and they tended to be bloody awful.

Byzantium underwent incompetence and turmoil (with a brief respite for Isaac Comnenus who sadly reigned only two years) until Alexius Comnenus (Isaac’s nephew) came to power. By then, the Empire was in bad shape. Assailed by the Norman adventurer Robert Guiscard (who destroyed forever the Byzantine presence in Italy), having to cope with the First Crusade (which proved at least less damaging than the Fourth...) and struggling to regain the Anatolian territory which had formed the heart of the Empire’s manpower, Alexius and his two successors performed admirably.

But the years between Basil II and Alexius had taken a permanent toll. Venice had dominion over the seas, Italy was lost forever, and the Turks were getting ever closer to the city itself.

Basil II, as emperor, was almost an unmitigated success. He utterly dominated the Empire, crushed his enemies and was absolutely devoted to his army, which he transformed from the dregs of civilisation to the most formidable force in the world.

But when it came to the succession he failed. His brother was clearly disinterested, and he had no nephew to take the reins directly (instead Zoe was used to assume power repeatedly).

Both Marcus Aurelius and Basil II are often considered amongst the finest of emperors. I find the former particularly overrated, for Basil’s error was perhaps more explicable (his brother would continue a long-running and successful dynasty whereas Marcus Aurelius ended the adoptive approach in favour of an incestuous psychotic) and he was more impressive as an emperor. But it goes to show that whilst the lack of an heir could lead to chaos, dissent and civil war, the presence of incompetent successors was even worse.