The Unexpected Sequel

The short version: my novel The Xenocide Mission is re-released in print and on Kindle.

The longer bit: I am aware of the financial realities of publishing; I know that publishers like to know an author has more than one novel inside them, and that very often said novel will be a sequel. I am not averse to sequels or serieses (they are overlapping circles on a publishing Venn diagram). Without moving my head very far from where I sit, I can get the entirety of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar series staring back at me, and my life is richer for it.

But I have never set out to write a novel with the intention from the start of following it up. A very helpful early bit of writing advice was that a novel should be about the most exciting thing that has ever happened to the hero. I still stand by it, though I would add “up to that point of their life”. This doesn’t preclude writing a sequel, but it should certainly make you pause a little. Bujold managed it, by and large; Miles’s life gets more and more interesting as it goes on, and when she’s got as far as she can go, she shifts attention to other characters. Other writers’ heroes have followed a distinct bell curve of being interesting, but I couldn’t possibly name Orson Scott Card or any other offenders.

For the 1994 Milford I took chapters of my space opera in progress, His Majesty’s Starship, which was very definitely planned as a standalone novel. I wrote it with an aim; that aim was achieved. Feedback was positive, helpful … and unexpected, in that when I explained the background plot (alien race wants help from the humans) an immediate reaction was: the aliens want us? With our history? Why? Can’t they do better? Milford does that – if you’ve got a blind spot, someone will spot it, never fear.

So, by the end of that crit session I had spontaneously generated a race of warlike aliens who had, for reasons no one including me quite understood, wiped out the native life on the next planet in their own solar system. Sooner or later they would discover faster-than-light travel and emerge into the galaxy as an active menace – so, for my friendly aliens, time was short.

That fixed the plot point, but what was I going to do with these aliens? They didn’t fit into the novel and I couldn’t possibly leave that point open. Fortunately, the same session made the criticism that my hero was a bit bland. He needed more background. He needed a family! An eighteen-year-old son Joel also generated spontaneously from the ether.

And these two things together, son + warlike aliens (with a smattering of inspiration from New Scientist), gave me enough material to write The Xenocide Mission, in which we learn exactly why the aliens did what they did. And yes, they did have their reasons.

I plotted a large chunk of The Xenocide Mission whilst staffing the company stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair, 1998. This had the advantage of looking a lot like actual work, and people who came up to me with work-based queries actually apologised for interrupting. Well, quite, art was happening. But I graciously answered their queries.

The Xenocide Mission did okay; it made it into Waterstones, which is more than His Majesty’s Starship ever managed. It paid off its advance, so, royalties. Early in the new century I got the chance to feel very futuristic and science fictiony when I was asked if I would like to include it in Random House’s fledgling ebook programme. I gaily signed away the rights, not noticing in those days of electronic infancy that there was no kind of reversion clause …

As of 2017 it was still in print, occasionally sending a trickle of pennies my way in royalties, more usually holding payment over until next time for not crossing the royalty threshold. Eventually I decided enough was enough and asked my agent to see if he could get the rights back. Random House promptly responded that it wasn’t out of print because it was available electronically and always would be … I pointed out that we knew it wasn’t OOP and were asking them to make it so, given that royalties were negligible and surely costing them more to administer than they got back. I also prepared a host of arguments exploiting ambiguities in the original contract and addendum, prepared to try and wear them down until they just gave in … And then, lo and behold, my superior logic work and the rights reverted. Just like that.

So, here we are: The Xenocide Mission, lightly edited (but only lightly; by and large I take the Pontius Pilate approach to standing by what I have written) and available in print and Kindle.

Footnote 1: Two versions meant sending Amazon two copies of the rights reversion letter from Random House, proving that I was allowed to do this. In fact, for the print version it meant sending off several copies: I had to make changes to the typeset content and it seems that at every stage of the printing process, something triggers the Amazon protocol droids to ask again and yet again whether I have the rights.

Footnote 2: When I tried to launch Amazon advertising campaigns for both versions, they were declined as I was using a very generous quote provided by Al Reynolds for the original edition. This was not a verified customer review … I know the limits of my patience and I know how far anyone gets when arguing with the protocol droids, so I de-Reynoldsed the ads and they seem to have gone through. But here it anyway:

“Anyone who missed Ben Jeapes’ first novel, His Majesty’s Starship, missed one of the best first contact books in a long while – a gripping, logical, original and fundamentally optimistic retake on one of SF’s richest themes. Brimming with humour and tension, The Xenocide Mission amply fulfils the promise of its predecessor.” – Alastair Reynolds.

So there.

Medical memories

Ten years – where does it go?

In March 1998 I started work at a medical publishing firm that I shall for the sake of legal liability call InsanelyRun. I returned to work after my second Christmas there on Tuesday 4th January 2000 and by the end of Wednesday 5th January I had been given notice. My boss, who shall be called J, had obviously decided on this course of action before Christmas; he didn’t have to let me enjoy the break with a clear mind, but he did and it was kind of him.

I had a long rant prepared to mark the anniversary: then I realised I had already delivered a mini-rant, tantalising long-term readers with a few succinct details, to mark the tenth anniversary of the interviews that got me the job in the first place. So here’s some extra detail that I didn’t say first time round.

InsanelyRun published high quality, highly illustrated full colour medical textbooks, with a bent towards urology. Runaway success in building up a list had led to the reason they wanted me – they had a large backlog of manuscripts that they just didn’t have the resources to deal with and the whole publishing programme was behind.

Jerome was a very good commissioning editor. Unfortunately he had the mad compulsion to keep on signing up the same deadweight, non-producing editors and authors over and over again. One reason he had wanted me was because in an earlier existence I had got a list of academic journals back on schedule. However, that was with the full support of a boss who knew exactly what was what, and measures included sacking the dead weights and only using writers who actually wrote. It was only a last chance sanction; we gave the dead weights every chance and every warning, and many of them responded favourably and worked harder for us, or gratefully accepted the chance to step down gracefully. But some were straightforwardly fired.

At InsanelyRun, the dead weights were rewarded for their efforts by being given yet another book to do. They were authorities in their field. Their names on the book covers sold copies. Or would have, if we had copies to sell.

Time and time again, we came back to the dichotomy between Jonquil’s expectations and how the world actually works. A signature on a contract was, to Jolyon, just as good as an actual manuscript in hand. (And to be fair, it should be; a professional author doesn’t miss deadlines without a very good reason, and plenty of warning if it becomes unavoidable. But these weren’t professional authors, they were doctors.) I suspect that a lot of his signing up was in fact a friendly chat over a drink in a hotel bar, which elicited a vague promise to write something for us, which turned into a contract without too much further thought. He never looked them in the eye and spelled out how it was going to be: “you will provide x, in y format, by z deadline.” And he enjoyed the commissioning process too much to let me sit by his side and do the dirty work for him. Thus these busy professionals found they had signed a contract to do a lot of work for so little money that they were pretty well doing us a favour, and meanwhile the job they were actually paid to do involved saving lives and making people better. It’s not that surprising that the priority slipped down their timetable.

One book, a multi-author textbook on benign prostatic hyperplasia, did so well that a second edition was decreed, with updated chapters. The only problem here was that none of the authors especially wanted to update their chapters as it had only been a year or so since the first edition and the field hadn’t progressed that much. No one was actually ready for a second edition, except Justinian. Guess whose fault it was decreed to be that none of the chapters were coming in?

Or there was the time I failed to get hold of an author for whom I only had a phone number. No address, no email, no web presence, just a phone number, with not even a voicemail at the other end. The phone would ring and ring and ring until eventually it cut out.

Juvenal casually mentioned the author’s campaign. What campaign?

“Oh, he’s standing for the Scottish Parliament …”

The twit actually thought that a man in the middle of an election campaign would take time out to write for us.

The final nail in my coffin was a website for urologists which I shall call The idea was good: it would be a regularly updated, dynamic repository of all thing urological – news, articles, abstracts, happenings – with core material was to be submitted by an unpaid editorial board, who like most of InsanelyRun’s authors had signed up on a wave of goodwill and then suddenly found reality getting in the way. The editorial board almost universally failed to come up with anything. I phoned them and phoned them and phoned them, leaving message after message after message on their voicemails. I wrote letters and bombarded them with emails. Short of going round and holding them at gunpoint while they wrote, there was not much more I could have done to wring their words out of them. Then one day Jamal sent me an email. “I’ve just left messages with all the board members. What exactly is the problem?”

I went to see him and demanded to know what the hell he meant.

“I’ve left messages with each of them,” he said patiently, as if explaining to an idiot. “They will get their messages and send their work.”

As if. Needless to say, they didn’t. Unfortunately Jordan got it into his head that they did and that he had achieved, with a single phone call, what I had failed to achieve with many. And despite my efforts to point out the reality of the situation, he never failed to drag it out on future occasions when my failings needed to be highlighted. The last time I heard this repeated was the final meeting where he finally, mercifully fired me.

But for all that, InsanelyRun was not an unhappy experience. As individuals, Jeremiah and his business partner treated their staff well. Jedekiah let me use the office printers to run off my manuscripts, in those days before electronic submissions. On one occasion he decided the entire company should decamp for lunch to the Head of the River and we stayed there for the rest of the afternoon. (Which didn’t help the pressure on anyone’s work, but he was the boss …) The week always ended with wine tasting in the office from about 4pm onwards on a Friday. And the staff were lovely people, all with a considerably better idea of how one actually publishes books than our leaders had.

But, at some point over the last summer, work relations with Jasper reached a new low (once again he dragged out the story of how he had phoned round the editorial board with allegedly more success than me) and I was actually given written notice that I should show signs of improvement. At the Frankfurt Book Fair in October I specifically asked: “are you happy with my work?” His answer wasn’t quite so specifically “yes”; he talked about how he had had concerns, and those concerns seemed to have been addressed, so yes, he probably was happy.

The year rolled on and into 2000 …

It would have come as less of a surprise if, at Frankfurt, he had just said “no”. Out came the litany of my alleged failings (including, yes, the time he called all the members of the editorial board) augmented by some brand new ones: complaints apparently received from the production manager and the senior editor, neither of whom had at that point come back from their Christmas break. Their version, when I heard from them, was a little different: he had come to them and made them wrack their brains for something, anything in my work that hadn’t been quite up to scratch. They obligingly came up with a few instances all of which (they hastened to add, to me) came well within the remit of usual glitches – no production process is ever perfect. But it was enough for Jestocost. I was given written notice and two months pay.

I was a sacrificial lamb. InsanelyRun was strapped for cash. It was eating up money, it badly needed to be getting its books out for its special sales and I was perceived as an obstacle in the flow. Jedekiah didn’t even appoint a replacement. The senior editor was given my job on top of her own, which took all her time anyway, with no commensurate increase in salary. She later confessed to me that she had never even looked at the pile of manuscripts I left behind.

Unpleasant though it was, I still maintain getting fired was one of the best things that ever happened to me for its knock-on effects that last to this day. I may or may not mark more tenth anniversaries over the next few years. Depends how bored I get. I will however share one more memory of InsanelyRun: in tomorrow’s post. It will make you smile …

Dog fight

We all want to side with the underdog. When there’s a clash of overdog vs uberdog I suppose the overdog’s position is still relatively under, so that’s why I say “excelsior!” to Macmillan and “ha ha” to Amazon.

In the space of 48 hours Macmillan and Amazon went from minor border skirmishes to all-out war, declared by Amazon and lost by same a short while later. Ultimately it all came down to Amazon’s vastly inflated idea of its rightful place in the affairs of man, finally clashing with a publisher big enough to say “no”. Amazon tried to impose terms on Macmillan, Macmillan weren’t having it and so Amazon withdrew its listings for every single Macmillan title.

Macmillan controls a lot of imprints. Suddenly, with no warning or reason given, a very large part of the global book supply was unavailable through the world’s largest book supplier.

To save you crawling all over the interwebs for further details, Charles Stross has written a useful guide to the battlefield: Amazon, Macmillan: an outsider’s guide to the fight.

If you’re more a bottom line sort of person, John Scalzi has written an entertaining analysis of Amazon’s kamikaze strategy: All the Many Ways Amazon So Very Failed This Weekend.

As you may have gathered by now, Amazon lost.

I’m not published by Macmillan or any of its imprints: other than general principle, I have no declarable interest in this. But I am still smarting, nearly 10 years later, from the punitive discounts Amazon imposed on Big Engine in return for the privilege of receiving a basic competent service from them: one that listed my titles accurately, didn’t unilaterally declare them out of print and so on. Now I feel those wounds healing. A little.