Pluralistic: Rosemary Kirstein's "The Steerswoman" (04 May 2024)

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Rosemary Kirstein's cover for her novel 'The Steerswoman.'

Rosemary Kirstein's "The Steerswoman" (permalink)

For decades, scammy "book doctors" and vanity presses spun a tale about how Big Publishing was too conservative and risk-averse for really really adventurous books, and the only way to get your visionary work published was to pay them to fill your garage with badly printed books that you'd spend the rest of your life trying to get other people to read:

Like all successful grifts, this one worked because it wasn't entirely untrue. No, mainstream publishing isn't filled with corporate gatekeepers who relish the idea of keeping your brilliance from reaching its audience.


But editors sometimes make bad calls. They reject books because of quirks of taste, or fleeting inattentiveness, or personal bias. In a healthy publishing industry – one with dozens of equal-sized presses, all commanding roughly comparable market-share, good books would never slip through the cracks. One publisher's misstep would be another's opportunity.

But after decades of mergers, the population of major publishers has dwindled to a mere Big Five (it was almost four, but the DOJ blocked Penguin Random House's acquisition of Simon & Schuster):

This means that some good books definitely can't find a home in Big Publishing. If you miss with five editors, you can exhaust all your chances with the Big Five.

There's a second tier of great publishers, from data-driven juggernauts like Sourcebooks to boutique presses like Verso and Beacon Press, who publish wonderful books and are very good to their authors (I've published with four of the Big Five and half a dozen of the smaller publishers).

But even with these we-try-harder boutique publishers in the mix, there's a lot of space for amazing books that just don't fit with a "trad" publisher's program. These books are often labors of love by their creators, and that love is reciprocated by their readers. You can have my unbelievably gigantic Little Nemo in Slumberland collection when you pry my cold, dead fingers off of it:

And don't even think of asking to borrow my copy of Jack Womack's Flying Saucers are Real!:

I will forever cherish my Crad Kilodney chapbooks:

Then there's last year's surprise smash hit, Shift Happens, a two-volume, 750-page slipcased book recounting the history of the keyboard. I own one. It's fantastic:

Then there's the whole world of indie Kindle books pitched at incredibly voracious communities of readers, especially the very long tail of very niche sub-sub-genres radiating off the woefully imprecise category of "paranormal romance." These books are landing at precisely the right spot for their readers, despite some genuinely weird behind-the-scenes feuds between their writers:

But as Sturgeon's Law has it: "90% of everything is shit." Having read slush – the pile of unsolicited manuscripts sent to publishers – I can tell you that a vast number of books get rejected from trad publishers because they aren't good books. I say this without intending any disparagement towards their authors and the creative impulses that drive them. But a publisher's job isn't merely to be good to writers – it's to serve readers, by introducing them to works they are likely to enjoy.

The vast majority of books that publishers pass on are not books that you will want to read, so it follows that the vast majority of self-published work that are offered on self-serve platforms like Kindle or pitched by hopeful writers at street fairs and book festivals is just not very good.

But sometimes you find someone's indie book and it's brilliant, and you get the double thrill of falling in love with a book and of fishing a glittering needle out of an unimaginably gigantic haystack.

(If you want to read an author who beautifully expresses the wonder of finding an obscure, self-published book that's full of unsuspected brilliance, try Daniel Pinkwater, whose Alan Mendelsohn, The Boy From Mars is eleven kinds of brilliant, but is also a marvelous tale of the wonders of weird used book stores with titles like KLONG! You Are a Pickle!):,_the_Boy_from_Mars

I also write books, and I am, in fact, presently in the midst of a long book-tour for my novel The Bezzle. Last month, I did an event in Cambridge, Mass with Randall "XKCD" Munroe that went great. We had a full house, and even after the venue caught fire (really!), everyone followed us across the street to another building, up five flights of stairs, and into another auditorium where we wrapped up the gig:

Afterwards, our hosts from Harvard Berkman-Klein took us to a campus pizza joint/tiki bar for dinner and drinks, and we had a great chat about a great many things. Naturally, we talked about books we loved, and Randall said, "Hey, have you ever read Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman novels?"

(I hadn't.)

"They're incredible. All these different people kept recommending them to me, and they kept telling me that I would love them, but they wouldn't tell me what they were about because there's this huge riddle in them that's super fun to figure out for yourself:"

"The books were published in the eighties by Del Rey, and the cover of the first one had a huge spoiler on it. But the author got the rights back and she's self-published it" (WARNING: the following link has a HUGE SPOILER!):

"I got it and it was pretty rough-looking, but the book was so good. I can't tell you what it was about, but I think you'll really like it!"

How could I resist a pitch like that? So I ordered a copy:

Holy moly is this a good novel! And yeah, there's a super interesting puzzle in it that I won't even hint at, except to say that even the book's genre is a riddle that you'll have enormous great fun solving.

Randall wasn't kidding about the book's package. The type looks to be default Microsoft fonts, the spine is printed slightly off-register, the typesetting has lots of gonks, and it's just got that semi-disposable feel of a print-on-demand title.

Without Randall's recommendation, I never would have even read this book closely enough to notice the glowing cover endorsement from Jo Walton, nor the fact that it was included in Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo's "101 Best Science Fiction Novels 1985-2010."

But I finished reading the first volume just a few minutes ago and I instantly ordered the next three in the series (it's planned for seven volumes, and the author says she plans on finishing it – I can't wait).

This book is such an unexpected marvel, a stunner of a novel filled with brilliant world-building, deft characterizations, a hard-driving plot and a bunch of great surprises. The fact that such a remarkable tale comes in such an unremarkable package makes it even more of a treasure, like a geode: unremarkable on the outside, a glittering blaze within.

Hey look at this (permalink)

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This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Disney buries Moore’s new movie to save its tax-breaks

#15yrsago Woman accuses cop neighbor of forging “Come get all my stuff for free” ad on Craigslist

#10yrsago How to Talk to Your Children About Mass Surveillance

#10yrsago Straczynski: “The New Aristocracy”

#1yrago Ostromizing democracy

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Upcoming books (permalink)

  • Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025

  • Unauthorized Bread: a graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025

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  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

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