John Scalzi on Neil Armstrong and Future Past

I’m grateful to see John Scalzi’s comments on the passing of Neil Armostrong. I’d been beginning to think that maybe the Science Fiction community had somehow missed this sad passing of an era. I didn’t comment immediately because I didn’t think I had anything meaningful to say. When Neil visited the moon my parents weren’t even legal yet, and I was nowhere yet near Planet Earth. By the time the last man left the moon, I was still no closer, for all practical purposes.

But after reading Scalzi’s post, I realize I do have something to add.

The achievement of Neil Armstrong and his fellow Apollo Astronauts and those who supported him is one unparalleled in history: mankind has not come close either before or since. Think about that: the greatest human achievement in history was done and gone and practically forgotten by the time I was born. Nothing, since then, has come even close. Sure, we’ve built on the shoulders of giants. But our dreams have been small dreams.

The human race is capable of some truly amazing things: Armstrong’s achievement is proof of that. And we’ve done a lot to make my childhood’s future something that is starting, bit-by-bit, to actually feel like the future. But the greatest disappointment of our future-present is the failure of manking in general and the US in particular to live up to the promise of Armstrong’s achievement.

It’s telling, in our modern day, that we’ve become so fractious and divided that we no longer have any shared dreams. We no longer look forward to a some brighter future. We no longer believe our best days are ahead of us. Instead, you have half our country trying to claw its way back to some imagined (pre-Apollo) golden age and the other half trying to hold on to the gains we’ve made as a society since then. In this divided time there is no room for the future. There is no room for bigger dreams.

In some ways the half looking backward is right: there was a brighter age in our past, but it shouldn’t have been that way: our brightest age should have been still in our future yet to come, with our present always brighter than our past.

There’s a way we can get back to that “future past”. There’s a way we can get things back on track. But we have to stop looking backwards to do so.

Whatever

I was two months old when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and 43 when he died, and inbetween those two events the future changed. When Armstrong landed, a human future in space seemed inevitable — we’d landed on the moon, after all. How long could it possibly be until we had moon colonies, space stations where thousands lived, stuck by centrifugal force to walls which were their floors, and a second space race to Mars? Why, not long as all, it seemed, and so I lived the first decade of my life breathlessly waiting for the moon colony and all the rest of it. And also drinking Tang because, hey, I wasn’t quite ten, and Tang was pretty awesome when you’re that age.

Four decades on, we never did get the mechanistic, physical future required for those moon colonies and space stations. In point of fact that future was…

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Mission Accomplished… Or Is It?

I tweeted this yesterday… but I thought I’d post a few more thoughts today.

I am now – officially – an MBA.  My master’s degree is done.  Like, really for real done.  Sure, class ended a few weeks ago, and I’ve been enjoying the generous expansion of my freer time in the evenings.  But now I have the paper that says it.  Now I have the stamp of approval.  Now I can truly say I’m done.

Well.  Not done, really, am I?  Because every milestone is just that: a measure of progress towards some greater destination.  They don’t call it “commencement” because it’s the end of something, now do they?  That would be more like a “concludement” or something. 

 That means, ideally, this is a time not merely of reflection but a time of anticipation, a time of looking forward, a time of planning.

For me, that will mean a lot of things. Continue reading

A Novel Venture (A Publishing Successor Model)

On Saturday, I alluded to the possibility of posts on some ideas I have for possible “successor” models to replace the existing “traditional publisher” model that predominates publishing today.  Market forces are whittling away at that dominance, and publishers are struggling to find new ways to survive.  Eventually, they will more than likely have to change to remain viable.

Today, I present the first (and possibly only, as so far this is the only idea I’ve come up with for an alternative) Publishing Successor Model.  The format is this: I will begin by describing the Model, giving it a name and detailing the basic function.  Then, I will offer an argument for why it will succeed.  Finally, I will conclude with an argument for why it will fail.  (If there are any future Publishing Successor Model articles, they’ll follow the same format.)

What it is:  The Novel Venture Capital Model

How it Works:  The model is based loosely on the way many small businesses in America today get funding, and how they are primed for success.  The idea is that the mechanisms by which novels are screened and edited (and financed) are decoupled from the printing and publishing process.  Instead of sending off query letters to publishers, novelists in the future will prepare short business plans (including a short summary of the novel, sample chapters, reviews of the finished work when available, an explanation for why the novel will succeed, target audience analysis, that sort of thing) for review by “Novel Venture Capitalists”. 

NVCs, as we’ll call them, are a decentralized, loose network of angel investors and avid readers of some means who organize together to fund “Novel Ventures” for publication and distribution in exchange for an equity share in the business venture (potentially anywhere between 20 and 60 percent stake).  Working with an NVC group gives an author access to that group of NVC’s network of distributed, experienced, and vetted freelance editors, artists, designers, proofreaders, and so on, as well as to established relationships between NVCs and the large, old-school printing, distribution, and marketing firms (today’s traditional publishers will become these, and will make their profit on a per-book-sold fee).  An NVC group may work with a number of different printing and distribution firms, depending on the specific distribution channel (for e-Books, Hardcovers, etc.). 

Because the primary role of the NVCs will be to screen and vet novels and novelists for publication, finance the venture, connect the novelists to skilled and experienced professionals who will manage the process, and then get out of the way and let the system work, the NVCs will develop a talent for, well, recognizing talent.  Everyone else gets to do the part they’re good at, and nobody has to support the overhead of trying to cram all that talent together under one roof (most of these jobs can be done from freelancers’ homes).

Why it Will Succeed:  Today’s new mid-lister authors will be tomorrow’s old guard, blockbuster novelists, replacing the current group as they pass away or retire.  And these mid-listers/future-blockbusters will be increasingly disloyal and disillusioned with current traditional publishers even as their own names increase in brand recognition with the reading public.  As the traditional publishers try to demand more and more rights from writers and offer ever-diminishing royalty rates in a bid for their own survival, these established and experience authors will revolt, seeking new opportunities in the open marketplace.  They’ll seek ways to maintain all of their rights, bundled together and closely held, and only sell out shares of the potential profits: a business model that ties easily with existing network of angel investors. 

Bereft of their big-name, tent-pole authors, the current business model of traditional publishers will suddenly implode as the reading public abandons them in droves.  They are forced to divest unproductive assets and imprints in order to lean up and compete with the smaller printers that are lapping up the new business.  The old publishers still have the means to do large-scale print runs the most economically possible.  Their divested imprints have the marketing and distribution relationships needed to manage the book, the publication process, and ultimately success. 

Writers get to keep the rights to their own work and keep on writing (even if they sometimes have to write business plans).  NVCs reap huge hordes of cash when Hollywood moguls purchase licensing options for film adaptations.

Why it Will Fail:  Typically, novelists are terrible at writing business plans, and have a general lack of business acumen.  Real-world Venture Capitalists demand huge returns on their investments, on the order of 30% or more over a couple of years (for comparison, the stock market historically returns something like 8% in the long term).  It’s uncertain whether the chance to fund (and get a share of) the next J. K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyers will be worth the risk of funding (and getting no return from) the next John. Q. Nobody (who is a more populous animal than the J. K. Rowlings) to business-savvy VCs.  Plus, the idea is predicated on groups of VCs who love books and reading simultaneously coming up with this same idea and spontaneously forming networks.  Heavy industry consolidation in publishing means the remaining players have a lot of power to manipulate the market for their own mutual benefit and to prevent their own demise.  It will take some heavy defection from some really major tent-pole authors (we’re talking tomorrow’s Stephen Kings et al.) before all the old publishers will be in any serious trouble.

What do you think?  How do you think the market and industry will evolve to solve today’s market and industry inefficiencies and problems?  Let me know in the comments.