Ebook pricing Storify and the Cult of the Debut

Today just before lunch, I saw this story on Publishers Weekly. Which reminded me of other reports like this one from the New York Times. But there’s a lot to *why* these reported print #s are likely dropping, and a lot these reports leave out. Which is where this discussion started.

I’d also like to say a bit more about the Cult of the Debut. This is a huge thing in publishing. Authors, Agents, Publishers, Reviewers, Booksellers, nearly everyone in publishing is culpable here. We all participate in the Cult of the Debut. The shiny new author, the undiscovered gem, the instant phenomenon new voice that will Revolutionize Publishing, so on and so on. Houses get into huge bidding wars over debuts they think will be the Next Big Thing, spending millions and millions of dollars on an unproven author.

And as authors, we get so worked up about The Big Debut. We see our colleagues getting six, seven figure deals out of the gate, and we despair, thinking we’ll never have the career they’re going to have. We fetishize the Big Debut as the One True Path to writing success? When in reality, a lot of those big debuts fail, and a lot of authors that do end up becoming bestsellers do so by building an audience over time.

VE Schwab just hit the NYT list with A Gathering of Shadows, the second book in a series, and her ninth book overall. She built an audience over six years, bringing her YA audience to her adult series. She has put the work in over time, alongside her publisher, to make this success happen. Stories like Schwab’s are far more achievable, far smarter of a strategy (even with the extraordinary circumstances of her film and TV deals, which are impressive and laudable in their own right), in my opinion, than throwing big stacks of money at debuts and hoping to win the lottery. Schwab has proven her work to be a good investment, has fostered a strong fan base, and now she is reaping the rewards. This is how to succeed without the Cult of the Debut.

Some people do debut right onto the NYT list. My agency-mate Jason M. Hough did with his novel The Darwin Elevator, but that happened because he busted his ass writing all three books in the trilogy so they could be released back-to-back-to-back, so his publisher had all the ammunition in the world to push the book hard. And then? It hit the NYT list probably in no small part to getting a very strong NPR on-air review during drive-time. But there’s no way to guarantee that kind of buzz or support. You make your bets, you give books everything you’ve got, and you pray. Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes, a big advance is the last advance you’ll ever see.

Me? I’m a career slugger so far. I do the work, I write pretty quickly, and I promote the ever-loving crap out of my work by being active online and at conventions. I refine my process, I look at what in my list is working and what isn’t, and I try to focus on writing to where my existing readers are – the pop-culture-savvy action/adventure kind of story.

A lot of writers carve out solid careers for themselves without ever hitting a Bestseller list, without ever getting a major award. They write, they make smart choices about what books to write when, and they find good publishing partners. They develop their careers deliberately, thoughtfully, and by making good bets. Publishers can and often do this, too. But publishers are still frequently distracted by the Cult of the Debut.

And this focus on debuts goes all the way down – Big Debuts get the budget, so they get the support. Which means they get more ARCs, more ads, more events. They get more time during presentations to buyers and librarians, which means they get more exposure to readers and reviewers. All the while, career writers, the long-term proven creators, just hammer out incrementally stronger books, trying to build their audiences organically because they’re not the New Hotness anymore.

We can all do better. Debuts are fun, and it’s exciting to be the person to spread the news about a brand-new author, but there’s a lot to be said for the experience and honed skill of a veteran writer. That’s what I’m hoping to become. It’s not as sexy a role, but it’s far more realistic.


My latest book is The Absconded Ambassador, Episode 2 of the Genrenauts series. The Genrenauts are a group of storytellers that travel to dimensions informed by fiction genres to find and fix broken stories in order to protect their home world.

The Absconded Ambassador

Award Eligibility Post – 2015

So – awards and award eligibility – some people hate eligibility posts, but this is my blog, so they can deal. 🙂

Here’s what I did in 2015, and how it would qualify in award categories – Hugo, Nebula, Locus, World Fantasy Award, etc.

Best (Fantasy) Novel

Hexomancy cover

Hexomancy

The fourth story (third novel) in the Ree Reyes urban fantasy series, where fandom and love of SF/F is its own magic system. This is the novel I’m proudest of so far – I think it represents a leveling up across several craft elements, including capping off the first major story arc for the series.

 

Best Novella

The Shootout Solution cover

The Shootout Solution

Episode one of the Genrenauts series – about a group that travels to genre-informed dimensions to find and fix broken stories in order to protect their version of Earth. This kicks off the series which I hope to be writing for the next few years – it’s fun, its wacky, and it delivers both adventure and analysis of why and how we tell stories.

 

Fancast

skiffyandfanty4_banner_web

Skiffy & Fanty

 

SpeculateBanner9

Speculate!

In 2015, I joined the cast of Speculate! while continuing to work with the Skiffy and Fanty Show, which was nominated for Best Fancast in 2014. Both are fantastic shows, and, in my opinion, fill different but important niches in the SF/F podcasting community.

 

Special Award – Best Professional (World Fantasy)

Michael R. Underwood – For work at Angry Robot

In my experience, Best Professional almost always goes to a Publisher or Editor, but there’s nothing that says that a Sales/Marketing Manager couldn’t be nominated and win. I worked closely on supporting every one of Angry Robot’s 2015 releases, including two Phillip K. Dick Award nominees, the Campbell Award winner, and more. A long shot, but worth mentioning, since this is my blog.

 

Fan Writer

Most of my non-fiction in 2015 was more professional than fannish, but I leave it to you, the voter, to decide what you like. Here are some of the best of the best from me in 2015:

Goals and Resolutions for 2016

2016 is here, and looking at my schedule and list of projects on proposal and in development, this year is looking like a big one.

Books

 

For the year, I’m going to divide things into Resolutions, Goals, and Ambitions. Resolutions are personal principles I’m going to try to keep in mind to help make a happier, more productive year. Goals are achievable actions and projects under my control. Ambitions are Cool Things I would like to see happen this year that require other people’s/company’s buy-in.

 

Resolutions

Here are some principles I’m going to try to keep in mind for the year:

  1. Focus on Joy, and share that joy. Spend more of my free time on things that make me happy. Celebrate colleagues and creators that inspire me – from talking up things I’m enjoying, recommending books and movies and shows and music, and so on. Use my platform to spotlight awesomeness.
  2. Elevate marginalized voices. This means signal-boosting people of color, women, LGBTQIA/QUILTBAG persons, and other people marginalized across various social axes. This lets me put my Privilege Yahtzee to good use and helps me continue to learn how to be a better-informed and more empathetic person.
  3. When I read an opinion about media that I deeply disagree with: just walk away (unless it’s actively bigoted, in which case, I can allow myself to throw down for great justice). This will hopefully keep me from wasting as much time arguing about things on the internet.
  4. Do writing work every weekday and one weekend day wherever possible. Optimally, this means drafting, revising, and/or promotion work. Writer admin (website, accounting, etc.) comes after drafting/revising/promotion. I’ve noticed that I get antsy if I spend too long without working on drafting or revising, so I want to be more consistent in working on that part of writing.
  5. Do what I can to reach out to people in more substantive ways. I love Twitter, but it’s become a very large part of my social life, and I want to mix in more Skype and in-person socializing.

 

Goals

These are mostly writer and career things. I’ll note that these are things totally under my control, rather than things which require other people’s buy in (those are ambitions, they’ll follow below).

  1. Revise Genrenauts Episodes 3-6. (Winter-Spring).
  2. Promote Genrenauts: The Absconded Ambassador.
  3. Publish Genrenauts Episodes 3-6 with Tor.com or myself.
  4. Finish, revise, and submit the Cool Space Opera WIP.
  5. Plot and start writing Genrenauts Season 2.
  6. Proceed with Sekret Project #1.
  7. Finish revising Beacons and pitch it.
  8. Write more Business of Publishing Essays and pitch them to major markets.
  9. Pick one new way to earn readers.
  10. Do it.

A lot of these are penciled in due to the fact that I have three different submissions/proposals active right now, and my plans for 2016 will be largely dependent on what happens with those. I really want to get all of Genrenauts Season 1 out this year, so that’s pretty solid. And Beacons is, I think, pretty close to being ready to take the next step. And the Business of Publishing Essays thing can fit well with many of the other things. But if more than one of those submissions/proposals comes back with a buy/offer, I’ll need to make a lot of writing time for them.

 

Ambitions

  1. Sell a novel to a Big Five SF/F house for wide print & ebook distribution.
  2. Sell a TV option for Genrenauts to a reputable production company/creator.
  3. Sell Beacons and/or get a work-for-hire job writing for a major comics company.
  4. Have one of my works/projects nominated for a major SFF award (either a book or one of the podcasts I work on).

 

The New Year is here, now let’s make it a great one.

What Star Wars Means To Me

I saw The Force Awakens again yesterday. And I loved it with every fiber of my being.

I am the person and writer I am in no small part due to Star Wars. I know I’m not alone in this. I’m not claiming to be singularly influenced in a deeper way than anyone else, yadda yadda. But here this is my story. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

I don’t remember a time when I hadn’t seen Star Wars. Its structure and tone has left an indelible mark on me.

Continue reading

Joy of Listening – Nov 2015

I listen to a *lot* of podcasts. The first one I remember is I Should Be Writing, which was my lifeline to the world of SF/F writing during my MA work in Oregon. I picked the habit back up when I was working as a traveling book rep, since my working week often included 20+ hours of driving.

So now that I work from home, I find that I’ve got way more podcasts that I’m interested in than I can make time to listen to them, even listening over breakfast, lunch, dishes, and afternoon walks.

And since misery loves company, I’m going to recommend some podcasts and episodes, so you too can know the joy of having too many wonderful things to listen to:

Ditch Diggers – A Must-listen for working writers, especially in the SF/F prose world. Hosts Mur Lafferty (of I Should Be Writing Fame) and Matt Wallace give you the no-BS look at what it’s like to write for a living. Ditch Diggers is the Business of Writing Podcast I would have started if they hadn’t gotten to it first – I’m very grateful that they did, because they’re doing a great job.

PlayWell – Games for the Greater Chaotic Good with Adam Koebel – I absolutely love the way Adam talks about making game spaces inclusive and using them to help talk people through difficult topics.

Book Riot – The flagship podcast of the Bookish site Book Riot. Lots of news about the publishing world, with a focus on Literary Fiction.

The Roundtable Podcast – Hosted by Dave “Creageous” Robison, The Roundtable Podcast not only does creator interviews, but they also do regular brainstorming sessions, where a guest writer will bring in an idea or in-progress story, and the hosts (including a working professional Guest Host) help take the idea up to the next level. I’ve appeared on the show a few times, and it’s some of the most fun I’ve had on a podcast as a guest.

And of course, you can hear me on The Skiffy and Fanty Show, mostly talking about media, and also now on Speculate! The Podcast for Writers, Readers, and Fans.

So, now I turn the mic. What are some of your favorite podcasts?

A Book Birthday Message from Your Host

Hi folks.

Today is the release of my seventh book, The Shootout Solution. It’s the beginning of my Genrenauts series, and I think it’s my strongest work to date. It’s about a group of storytellers that travel between dimensions, each other world being the home of a story genre (Fantasy, Mystery, Romance, etc.). They find and fix broken stories in order to protect their Earth. Genrenauts lets me explore my thoughts about the social and psychological role of genres and storytelling. It’s also a chance for me to try to tell a big, dramatic story while staying optimistic.

It’s like Leverage meets Jasper Fforde, or Leverage for stories. It’s a great match for Ree Reyes fans, or for anyone that likes action/adventure or genre-bending SF/F.

Some of you have been with me since Geekomancy released in 2012, others are probably just now finding my work. Whoever you are, however you got here, thank you for completing the storytelling circuit. I write these books to communicate, to get my thoughts out into the world, and to entertain. Without you, without readers, I’m just talking to myself.

I’m incredibly excited about this series, as you have already seen. I’ve got a five-seasons planned for the series, and I’ve already written all six episodes of season 1. I want to take this one all the way.

Now, it’s up to you, the readers, to see if you like the book. Because if you do, there’s plenty more to come. Not just from me, but from the entire Tor.com Publishing imprint. They’ve got stand-alone novellas and series like mine across every corner of SF/F, from gritty revenge stories starring anthropomorphic animals to lyrical tales about outsider witches, stand-alone epic fantasy, and more.

If you’re here, it’s probably because you already know me from my books, from Twitter, from Angry Robot, or from a podcast. However you got here, welcome. I work from home, so a lot of my socializing happens through the internet – I thrive off of that interaction, and I appreciate having you here.

Like I said, it’s my book birthday, so here’s my wish: Please buy The Shootout Solution. And if you like it, tell your friends. Tell your co-workers. Find the people in your life that you think would enjoy the series, and share it with them. And then, consider trying some of the other novellas from Tor.com. We’re all in this boat together.

Every book that does well makes it more likely that Tor.com Publishing will succeed. Because I tell you what – Macmillan aren’t the only ones watching. You can guarantee that other publishers are watching what happens with Tor.com Publishing and deciding what to do about novellas, about innovative publishing strategies.

This entire imprint is an experiment by Macmillan, which does a perfectly good business in SF/F with their existing imprints (Tor Books is the largest North American publisher of SF/F, with many of the biggest writers in the genre). Macmillan is taking a big risk and investing a lot in trying to make this new model work, but it will only succeed if readers get as excited about novellas as the staff and writers for the imprint are.

I’ve found writing novellas to be incredibly rewarding – they’re long enough to establish an interesting world and tell a meaty story, but they don’t come with the expectations of a full-length novel. You can get in, tell your story, and get out, without the need to elongate the story with sub-plots and additional try-fail cycles. I still love writing novels, but this series has taught me to appreciate the versatility and beauty of the novella form. And for episodic storytelling in prose? Novellas are the place to be.

So if you’re excited about novellas, too – whether it’s from reading Genrenauts already, other novellas, or from any of the other Tor.com Publishing books, please spread the word. Recommend novellas to your friends, buy novellas as gifts for the holidays, and be sure to review the novellas you’ve read on retailer sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, as well as Goodreads.

So, here’s the take-away:

  1. Please buy The Shootout Solution – you can get it in paperbackebook, or audio (narrated by the amazing Mary Robinette Kowal, who narrated Celebromancy and Attack the Geek). The ebook edition is just $2.99, less than a latte, and just as energizing.
  2. Once you’ve read the book, please consider writing an honest review on retailer sites (Amazon, B&N, iTunes) and Goodreads. More reviews = more attention = more support from the publisher and from the retailers themselves. Especially on Amazon, the more reviews a book gets (especially right away upon release), the more it gets recommended through emails and so on. This is huge, especially for a digital-first book like The Shootout Solution.
  3. Spread the word. Talk about the book wherever you like to talk about books. This is really the most important thing. Maybe you can’t afford to buy too many books, or don’t have the time to read more than a handful a year. If you never buy one of my books and get them all on NetGalley or whatever, you can still make a huge difference by talking about the book. Anonymity is the kiss of death for creative work, so when someone cares about a work, cares enough to talk about it, that is magic.

P.S. If you buy the book before November 23rd, or if you’ve already pre-ordered, you can enter to win a signed & personalized print galley of The Absconded Ambassador, Genrenauts Episode 2. I’m doing this because early sales are a huge deal, I greatly appreciate them, and this is a way I can show that appreciation.

 

The way I see it, creative work succeeds when it makes an impact. Whether that’s just being a pleasant distraction during your commute or a way to focus during a flight, changing your mind or how you see the world, or providing a way to fill a lazy afternoon – however you partake, the fact that you care is the biggest magic of all.

Because it’s the beginning of what I hope to be a big, ambitious series, it’s really important for the first book to sell well. That’s why I’ve been running around the entire internet doing podcasts, written interviews, guest posts, videos, etc. I’ve been doing my best to spread the word and get people excited about it.

Thanks for coming this far, and I hope you’ll come back as Genrenauts continues February 23rd, 2016, with Episode 2 – The Absconded Ambassador.

Genrenauts Combined

 

The New Landscape – Access, Discovery, and Media De-centralization

Several things popped up in rapid succession that got me thinking. The first was this announcement regarding YouTube Red, the new ad-free paid tier of YouTube. The second was the news of a new Star Trek series, to be aired (almost?) exclusively on CBS All Access, a streaming service. And then, just as I was writing this post, Amazon announced Amazon Books – a Bricks & Mortar test store.

So now, I’m going to put on my digital media scholar hat once more and talk about some high-level stuff going on right now. Some pitfalls and pain points I see, as well as opportunities.

YouTube Red has been some time in the making. January of this year, musician Zoë Keating got a lot of shares and chatter with her post “What should I do about YouTube?” on this very topic. I see this move as part of an overall shift in the landscape toward more and more de-centralization of content, where 1st-party streaming systems and subscriptions replace once-agnostic content aggregation-esque systems like YouTube, Hulu, etc.

Here’s YouTube creator Hank Green discussing some of the ins and outs of this move.

I appreciate him spending the time to talk about the positives and negatives, avoiding a hard knee-jerk reaction. I’m worried about the independent creators who had found an equilibrium between Patreon, YouTube, and other venues who now have to pivot and adjust in a big way. It’s the way of life, but any logistical interruption costs creators money, because have to spend spend more of their time on admin and strategy rather than the actual creation.

And then, just hours later, I saw the news about the new Star Trek show, and that it was going to be almost exclusively available on CBS All Access, a paid streaming subscription which currently costs $5.99 a month.

It looks to me (and others, from what I’ve seen), that this is CBS positioning the new show as a Killer App for their streaming service, which I’d not heard of before today (I’m mostly out of the Media Criticism game day-to-day, thanks to having two other careers).

It’s potentially a very smart approach – and one that most of these proliferating paid services are following. HBO, Netflix, Hulu, Kindle Unlimited, all of them are bringing in or commissioning exclusive content to serve as Killer Apps for their individual services.

But here’s the thing about that proliferation – if every service has its own killer apps behind their pay walls, most consumers are very quickly going to max out on the $ they can or choose to pay for these services.

 

Consumer Side

An example – I have a steady, middle-class day job and I have a writing career. I’m married to someone who also has a steady job, and we have no kids. So we have more disposable income than a lot of US families. Between us, we pay for Netflix, Hulu, and High-speed internet. I get my razors on a subscription, I subscribe to a fiction serial (Bookburners), I’ve been an intermittent subscriber to Oyster and Scribd, as well as supporting a half-dozen creators on Patreon and intermittent subscriptions to broadcasters on Twitch.tv. As a household, we’re probably in the top quartile of subscription service users in the US. And I’m very much at the point of ‘Okay, that’s all I can do’ when it comes to subscription services. If I add one at this point, it probably involves dropping another.

And there are *so many* of them these days:

Twitch, YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Crunchyroll, HBO Now, CBS Access, Spotify, Apple Music, Kindle Unlimited, Scribd, Amazon Prime, etc.

And that’s not even counting subscription boxes (L00tCrate, etc.) and subscription services outside of entertainment, like Harry’s, Blue Apron, StitchFix, etc.

Economic recovery in the US is happening, but it’s slow, and it’s accompanied by wage stagnation and income inequality (I can’t speak well to the economic situation elsewhere, so I won’t). So the % of people in the US that can afford numerous subscription services without seriously re-framing their budget is still not too large, from what I can tell. Whether this is part of an overall paradigm shift in how people budget and consume content is a different discussion (there are too many ways this could go – I have to focus).

 

Creator Side

Switching hats now – what does this look like on the creator side of the equation?

I see this proliferation of paid/gated services as a double-edged facet of the overall creative & commercial ecosystem. There are opportunities, but they’re potentially fraught.

Here’s what I see as the dominant progression for a creator trying to make money from their work (visual art, music, prose, comics, video, etc.)

Level 1 – Start small, give stuff away for free, sell some stuff. At Level 1, a creator is almost totally reliant on big systems, for both discovery and fulfillment/delivery. Basically no one knows who they are, so they join larger infrastructures and services to get the word out about their material through algorithmic and organic discovery.

Level 2 – Building Audience & Relationships — At this level, it becomes viable to sell some merch (T-shirts, mugs, stickers, patches, etc. Here, a creator can bring dedicated fans onto a growing mailing list. This level enables direct sales and stronger performance on retail sites, but the creator may still be largely dependent for discovery-enabled growth and a lot of fulfillment/delivery

Level 3 – Big Creators – Here, creators have a dedicated audience large enough they can get a living wage directly from their base, either totally direct or through Patreon/Kickstarter. Maybe they supplement their income speaking/appearance fees etc., being large enough that they are in demand not just as creators, but as entrepreneurs/thought leaders in their field. They may still use large systems, but if they do, they do so from a far stronger position – they are less dependent on any given system, since their base is strong, a base that is specific and mobilized, not platform-dependent.

This system is reductive, and by applying it broadly across media, I lose some nuance. Musicians can tour and get money from in-person appearances and sell merch there – novelists and poets largely cannot. Visual artists can sell commissions at conventions for solid income, writers have less opportunities in such situations. Etc.

Some take the pure indie path and are less reliant on the bigger systems, but then don’t have access to their discovery engine.

As the landscape moves toward more gated content, more push for exclusives as killer apps, more and more places to publish and publicize, creators have to have our eyes wide frakking open as we consider every new platform, every new distributor agreement, every new book deal, and so on.

Because things are moving fast, and these big platforms are only allies for as long as we’re useful to them. ACX changed its payout terms last February, and because ACX was the only real game in their town (self-publishing audiobook service), creators were forced to sign the new terms or walk from that service entirely. It’s the same type of choice YouTube creators have been forced into, though with notable differences (ACX was a flat-out rate cut, YouTube might come with additional payment, but requires more opt-in and cuts off other options). Any creator that relies on a single or small # of services/sites/retailers for a large % of their business is vulnerable to disruption, as Chuck says in the link re: ACX.

Anytime one of these big companies makes a shift, it causes huge ripples, and creators, especially those of us reliant on platforms for fulfillment, discovery, or other services/opportunities they offer have to roll with the changing tides.

In my opinion, creators right now have more to fear from Monopsonies and monopsonic behavior, than monopolies. Since so many creators are currently beholden to retailers and/or content services (writers and Amazon/B&N/Kobo/iTunes/Physical Bookstores, musicians and iTunes/Spotify/Pandora), if a creator wants to retail their work but doesn’t have enough reach/audience on their own, they use a seller/vendor. But if there are few enough vendors in their world, and those limited vendors exhibit monopsonic behavior, the result tends to be a major squeeze on the creators.

Paradoxically, the creators are the only reason the monopsonists can survive – if a majority of creators pulled out of monopsonic vendors, those vendors would collapse. But in the meantime, the lost income, the lost access could easily bankrupt a huge % of the creators pulling away from the monopsonist.

In a healthy market, there are a range of options, and creators can respond to a change of terms they dislike by removing their content from that platform. But for most video creators, removing everything from YouTube stands to present a loss of a huge % of their access and income, just as a prose writer would stand to lose a huge % of their access and income if they decided to not sell through Amazon.

Monopsonic behavior also impacts larger creator groups, like publishers – if one retailer or wholesaler gets too strong, it can create problems. It’s the WalMart problem. Wal-Mart pushes down prices, then makes up their $ in volume and by demanding better terms from their vendors, The vendors (publishers, manufacturers, etc.) then get to choose – pull out of the single-largest physical retailer, or accept the terms. Because individually, Wal-Mart doesn’t need most vendors. They need a plurality or majority, but as long as the selection adds up, individual vendors can come and go.

So when you’re one of those vendors, one of those creators, you end up in a really terrible situation. And that worries me. I want a healthy marketplace, where creators (authors, musicians, etc.) and the publishers/labels/etc that work with them have options, have recourse for if/when terms change in a way that becomes untenable.

The sky is not falling. But I will continue to point out rain clouds when I see them forming. Because then the smart folks can put out buckets and save on the water bill, or pull the lawn furniture inside before the storm breaks.

I’ll stop there before torturing the metaphor any further.

What do you all think about these streaming service moves – YouTube Red, and Star Trek on CBS All Access?

Mike’s latest book is Hexomancy, the fourth Ree Reyes urban fantasy. Geek magic squares off against a quartet of fate witches hell-bent on revenge.

Hexomancy cover

Casting your story and storytelling from below

So, you’ve got your setting and your premise for the story. But you don’t know who the characters are, don’t know how to make the premise personal.

Here’s some questions to ask yourself that might help put a face to the story you’re looking to tell.

Who has the most to gain? What would they need to do to accomplish it? Who would stand in their way?
Who has the most to lose? How can they resist such a loss? Who is taking it from them? How?
Who does this setting exploit? To what end? What recourse to they have?
Who does this setting/situation deprive of a voice? What systems or characters enforce that oppression?

If you’ve got a gee-whiz worldbuilding element – a magic style, a new technology, a weird feature of the world, think about these questions:

Who uses the magic/tech? Who can use it, and who uses it when they’re not supposed to? 
What does the magic/tech make easier? Whose work or power does it undermine? Who does it most benefit from it?
Who lives in the special place? Who is most disadvantaged by the special place? Who stands to gain the most from the existence of the special place?

These questions are informed by a number of theories and ideas. There’s a thread of postcolonial scholarship called Subaltern Studies, focusing on post-colonial/post-imperial societies, many of whom practice an approach called ‘history from below,’ which I think is a great framework for going back to first assumptions in casting a story, especially in traditional fantasy.

Traditional fantasy is history from above – it’s the story of kings and princes and powerful wizards, of conquerors and saviors. Some fantasy stories to take the history from below perspective, but I think that there is a lot more to be done there. Many writers come to the genre and default into the expected cast – writing fantasy without princesses and grand wizards and mighty knights is missing the point for some people.

Another interesting thing that happens if you take a history from below approach is that the scope and scale of stories change. The destined farmboy seldom stays at his low socio-economic status as he becomes the hero. The orphan girl who is secretly the princess gets her inheritance, is raised to the nobility.

But what happens when you have a lead who starts and stays in their low socio-economic status? Not just a hero who has grand adventures and then settles down, but someone who is constrained by society such that the grand adventures they have are similarly bounded. There’s a danger in SF/F of taking the low-status hero and removing them entirely from their original context, which creates a kind of brain-drain and erasure – the poor orphan is chosen as a hero because they can then have an epic rise in status and leave their dreary old life behind. But the story quickly leaves their original context and seldom returns – it’s a story more about knights and princes and kingdoms at war, where the hero’s original life and concerns are left entirely behind.

Escaping a bad situation to make a better life for yourself is all well and good, but there’s a lot to be said for taking a different approach, where characters deal directly with their social situation, struggling directly with oppression, marginalization, systemic injustice, and so on. Because billions of real people deal with that every day. And if the only stories we write are ‘be lucky enough to escape your situation and everything will be better!’ it re-enforces the cultural notion that people deserving enough will escape the bad situation, that poverty and marginalization can only be escaped by the lucky few. It reifies the idea that marginalization, poverty, and exploitative circumstances are just back story, not a real lived reality that has to be addressed.

Stories can be anything, about anyone. I invite my fellow storytellers to feel empowered and invited to approach stories from all angles, for all peoples, to create alternatives, strategies not only for throwing down the Evil Overlord who would make night last forever, out-smarting the evil corporation to keep them from copyrighting drinking water, but also how to keep your landlord from screwing you over, how the street finds its own uses for things, and how to build a support network of people who can help one another out when the whole world is stepping on their neck.

Stories are for everyone, especially those with the fewest options.