Discussion: Australian conventions/memberships/interstate stuff

I had a thought today. (Folks who know me will be familiar with my occasional crazy ideas…)

The Preamble

I’ve been thinking about convention membership prices for a while, pretty much every time I need to pay one, or hear about someone struggling to pay one.

It’s been a while since I’ve been on the organising end of a convention, but I know they are expensive things to run. Hotel venues are usually in the vicinity of exorbitant, and I’d assume that the bulk of the membership fees go to covering this expense. And it isn’t a discretionary line-item, in that the con needs a venue.

I also know that in general cons don’t aim to run at a significant profit/surplus; while they may be able to put aside a few bucks at the end to pass on to the next con, this is often achieved through sponsorships or more people than expected attending.

So back to my idea. Right now we have possibly (on paper) the healthiest convention calendar Australia has seen for at least 22 years (which is as long as I’ve been attending). We have three guaranteed annual conventions: Swancon (Perth), Conflux (Canberra), and Continuum (Melbourne); as well as occasional natcons in other cities (and in recent times the 2-yearly NSW Writers Centre SF Festival, a slightly different beast, I’m also excluding the Sydney FreeCons from this as, I understand, there is no membership fee required to attend).

All of these makes for a lot of expensive travel in order to attend as many as possible. A conservative $1000-2000 ($700 airfare, $1000 hotel + food, $300 membership) in rough figures to attend a con not in your home state. These are rough figures, and while savings may be able to be made through room sharing, it’s still a sizeable chunk o’ filthy lucre. Possibly enough to discourage interstate attendance.

At the same time, I really believe that the best and strongest conventions come from having as many attendees from all over Australia. I think this helps out with programming, and the overall vibe of the show. I think that whatever can bring as many people together to these events is best for the community.

The idea

So, as the idea goes, would a convention gain from offering an interstate discounted membership; say $100 at the door?

It’s just an idea, I don’t know how it would work in practice. I’d start by looking to exclude NatCons from this suggestion, as I think the nature of those events encourage interstate participation and attendance. So I’m only looking at non-NatCons. So would like to throw some questions out there for discussion.

The questions

1. Would such a discounted membership encourage interstate visitors to attend?

2. What is the rough current proportion of local to interstate attendees: would such a discount be taking money out of the convention?

3. Would there be local resistance to “foreigners” getting a cheaper rate?

4. Are there other/more effective ways to promote and encourage interstate attendees?

Your thoughts?

Steven Utley 1948-2013

I woke up this morning to news I wasn’t hoping to hear for many years. Steven Utley, writer, reader, and friend, had passed away.

He’d emailed a bunch of folks just after Christmas, letting us know his diagnosis. He sounded himself, positive, and I really believed that he’d beat this. Even when he mentioned the brain lesion, the loss of fine motor skills, his tone talking about treatment gave me all the false hope I needed to hear.

I sent Steven a couple of emails over the course of the last fortnight, being generally supportive.

I didn’t pick up the phone and call. I wish I’d picked up the phone and called him.

My first communication with Steven Utley was over the phone. It was 1996 or 1997, back when I was living on “Young One’s Central”, and Steven had just moved to Tennessee. I was hanging around with the wrong crowd (Jonathan, Jeremy and Richard from Eidolon), doing the wrong things (reading stories by Howard Waldrop), and the idea of starting a small press fell into my head. I’d scored Utley’s number from the manuscript for the intro to Custer’s Last Jump, and after performing numerous timezone calculations (this was way before mobile apps or google) I plucked up the courage to call him.

I was a 23-year-old punk rock loving kid back then, full of wild enthusiasm and a lack of a solid clue, but I tried to sound mature and professional on the phone. I don’t recall being shit-scared (my little secret: whenever I approach a writer or editor about a new project, I am shit-scared) but I probably was; also worried about how much the call was going to cost, as international phonecalls were really really expensive in those days.

As it turned out, Steven had just had a collection deal fall through, so he was happy to talk and sent me a list of stories. Jonathan Strahan gave me a copy of the SFWA standard contract, I filled in the gaps (I doubt I knew enough to know what the rest of it meant) and sent it off. Steven signed it, and the rest is history.

That last section skips over something big. Why did I approach Utley to publish a collection of his work? Having read and loved “Custer’s Last Jump”, I began wondering who this Steven Utley guy was (I knew who Howard Waldrop was). I hit the shelves of Murdoch library, found a published bibliography, photocopied it and then set about reading everything I could that was listed. I photocopied every story of his they had among the shelves: from Asimov’s, F&SF, Galaxy, a bunch of others — if you find an issue on the shelves that falls open to an Utley story, it’s probably my fault.

I read all those stories on the bus back to Young One’s Central, I made multiple trips to make sure I had all I could. Those stories were amazing, full of ideas but much more importantly, full of humanity. I was only beginning to understand the difference between plot- and character-driven fiction, and Utley filled my head full of incredible characters. He could paint a person, or a trait of humanity, in a short story, telling you all you need to know in a few lines of dialogue; from the spaceship captain in “Upstart”, looking the titanic alien in the eye and asking ‘Who wants to know?’; to the marine in “Dog in a Manger”, destroying all of humanity’s treasures, ‘We couldn’t let them have it.’; to the doctor fighting cholera in “Haiti”, “Fuck men on Mars.”

There were so many characters, from Devonian explorers, to the mysterious country doctor, to women finding independence; always normal people, though sometimes in extraordinary situations. I really believe that Steven loved all of his characters, even the ones he didn’t agree with, and each of his stories were filled with the right people for the job. His disagreeable types were still characters, not stereotypes or pastiches.

Reading those stories at the time, I came to the conclusion that Steven Utley was the best damn short story writer on the planet. I may have been 23 and I have no idea what crap my head was full of back then, but I’m damn sure that kid was right about one thing.

Except Steven Utley isn’t on the planet anymore, at least not in the right way. I’m an atheist, but at times like these turn to thermodynamics for solace, so that Utley’s constituent atoms will always be with us.

We also have his stories, tales of love, hope, humanity, and they will live for a long time still.

These words aren’t really enough, but I’m sure that in coming days and weeks others far more eloquent than me, who knew Steven closer and longer, will share their stories.

The next big thing – MIDNIGHT & MOONSHINE

Long, long ago, in pretty much this galaxy right here, a guy called Paul Magrs started this viral author promotional idea. The idea was to start with, say, five writers, and send them a set of interview questions asking about their latest writing project, whether they’re published, or still struggling (or, of course, published and struggling).

Thanks to the wonderful (though slightly misguided) Adrian Bedford, I present my deluded ramblings.

What is the working title of your next book?

That’s tricky, being a publisher I’ve got a number of next books. The next book we’ll start shipping is MIDNIGHT & MOONSHINE, by Lisa L. Hannett and Angela Slatter. The next book in the list to publish is INVISIBLE KINGDOMS by Steven Utley, in February 2013. And the forthcoming book that I’m focussing most attention on at this very moment is Juliet Marillier’s PRICKLE MOON, publication April 2013.

Given this is about “the next big thing”, I should talk about MIDNIGHT & MOONSHINE, as Hannett and Slatter fit that best. Juliet Mariller has been bigger than the next big thing for over a decade; while Utley has been writing the most underrated short stories for 40 years.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The idea came via email from Angela Slatter, that went something along the lines of, “Lisa and I are going to write a collection of linked stories about Norse Gods, fairies, and shoes, and it’s going to be awesome, and you’re gonna publish it, and pay us lots of shoe-money.  And here’s a story about fairies and shoes that we prepared earlier.”

Given I think fairies are crap and am blissfully ignorant in the ways of women’s shoes, I agreed straight away. It also helped that I knew Angela and Lisa were totally shit-hot writers who could make anything work.

What genre does your book fall under?

Dark fantasy, or fantasy with horror elements, or horror with fantastical elements. I’m not good at putting books into genres.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

This is tricky, given the stories span over a thousand years, with characters coming and going. I’d like to see Angelica Houston in it somewhere, and if Dame Margaret Smith could play an ageing Southern belle there’s a role just right for her.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

From fire giants to whispering halls, disappearing children to evening-wolves, fairy hills to bewitched cypress trees, and talking heads to moonshiners of a special sort, MIDNIGHT & MOONSHINE takes readers on a journey from ninth century Vinland to America’s Deep South in the present day.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Published by Ticonderoga Publications.

How long did it take you to write a first draft of the manuscript?

The contract was signed December 2010, and the manuscript was delivered around August this year.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

It would be tempting and lazy to compare MIDNIGHT & MOONSHINE with Neil Gaiman’s AMERICAN GODS, but while there are thematic similarities, really the two are very different. Hannett and Slatter are very different writers indeed.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I have absolutely no idea. What inspired me to buy it was the fiercely fabulous body of work Hannett and Slatter have produced, and the confidence that they’d deliver something that would be uniquely brilliant.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

There’s fantastic cover art by Kathleen Jennings, a wonderful introduction by Kim Wilkins, and a limited hardcover edition signed by all contributors. We’re launching it in Brisbane at Avid Reader bookshop on 30 November, with a second launch at the South Australian Writers Centre in Adelaide on 14 December. MIDNIGHT & MOONSHINE received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and you can order this awesome book from http://www.indiebooksonline.com

Now, who to tag next?

Definitely Juliet Marillier and Steven Utley, as I short-changed them right at the start of this. Kim Wilkins, Amanda Pillar, and Greg Mellor (I’d also tag my beautiful fiancé Liz Grzyb if she didn’t keep telling me how busy she is at this time of year).

Marriage equality

Dear Senators Back, Bishop, Cash, Cormann, Eggleston, Johnston, Smith and Sterle,

I am writing to inform you that, due to your decision not to vote for marriage equality,  you will not be receiving my vote at any time in the future.

For the record, I would like you to know the following:

1. I am one of those people who vote below the line for the Senate, and will ensure that you are preferenced last when I do this. I would rather give my vote to other candidates within your party, and other, more extreme parties, in order to do my best to ensure that you no longer represent me in the Senate.

2. I am a heterosexual male, engaged to be married to the most wonderful woman in the world. We intend to marry in March 2014. Your failure to guarantee marriage equality makes us feel uncomfortable, even guilty, that we should be allowed to marry, when many other Australians are denied this right by the simple nature of their biological sexual preference. Your decision has denied Australian happiness, and made Australians such as myself and my wonderful fiance, feel uncomfortable about what should be the happiest day of our lives.

I have copied Senators Louise Pratt, Chris Evans, Scott Ludlam and Rachel Siewert into this letter so they may know that, through their courage and convictions, have secured my vote in future elections.

Yours sincerely

Russell Brian Farr

A trend I’m not sure I’m comfortable with

There’s a bit of a trend right now for single author collections of mostly, if not all, original fiction. Now the collection of originals isn’t a new thing by any means: it’s been around for a number of years in YA especially where there aren’t necessarily the same short fiction markets.

When I started doing collections, the idea, and the expectation, was to collect a bunch of reprints, and then get one or maybe two original stories, something new to offer the fans. And that original story was a feature, a selling point, a point of difference.

Over the last couple of years, there seems to be a different expectation, that a stand-out collection is full of original stories, with maybe one or two reprints. Some of this may be awards-driven, based on feedback from last year’s Aurealis Awards Collection panel, who felt that the amount of original work was a significant criteria.

I should add that Ticonderoga published the winning collection, Lisa L. Hannett’s Bluegrass Symphony, and it did only have one original [EDIT: should have said “reprint”] reprint story in the contents.

So why am I concerned?

I’m not sure that this current trend is good for the writer. There was, afterall, a good reason for collecting reprints. From all I’ve seen, the average fee a writer gets for a collection is less than a novel, in a lot of cases because the average collection sells less than a novel. That makes sense. Allowing the writer to sell the stories individually, as original and unpublished, to any number of markets, allows the writer to make more money off each story.

An example: soon to be published from TP is Volume 1 of Steven Utley’s Silurian Tales, The 400-Million-Year Itch. These stories have all (but one) been published in a bunch of paying markets over the last 15 years. Then Steven gets to bundle all these up and sell them again, and it all helps him pay the bills.

Had Steven put together a collection of original stories, he wouldn’t be banking anywhere near the same amount, probably missing out on over a dozen decent-sized cheques (and I’ll be honest, most of the stories would have paid more than he’s getting for the collection unless it does really well).

I don’t want to take anything away from the number of fantastic, mostly original collections out there. There is a certain joy to reading books like this, especially when there’s a thematic tie between the stories like Bluegrass Symphony, or Angela Slatter’s Sourdough and Other Stories. But is my reading pleasure tainted with guilt that the writer could be earning more?

I also don’t want to come across as being against every collection that is mostly original work. I think there is a place for these, especially when there is either a thematic link or a publisher with deep pockets.

I’m not sure that I’d want this collection expectation to become the dominant trend, if it means disadvantaging writers. To me a collection is a bonus payment, not necessarily the primary income source for shorter works.

today at Ticonderogaville

We won an award!

Dead Red Heart, a fantastic anthology of 33 Australian vampire tales I edited last year, was given the Australian Shadows Award for Best Edited work.

I’d like to congratulate all of the writers who sent me their fabulous stories, making this book so special. All credit for the award must go to them.

Credit also must go to Liz Grzyb for all the work she does at TP — it’s amusing to see that the Australian Shadows site presently credits her as the editor of Dead Red Heart. I’m sure that they’ll change it at some point, but given all the years folks have given me credit for the wonderful work Liz has done, I’m happy for her to get some extra creditt now.

Dead Red Heart is a special book: I had a copy with me on my last visit to Canberra, and one afternoon I read Jane Routley’s story “Bats” to Mum. Of all of the great stories, it was probably the one she would have enjoyed the most.

Thanks also to Lisa L Hannett for texting me congratulations, otherwise I’d still be working on the layout for the ARC for Steven Utley’s The 400-Million-Year Itch and completely oblivious — I haven’t been on social media for a couple of days.


I am uncool. I have been for many years, probably all of my life except for the briefest moment in  my last year of high school, when I was the cool uncool kid.

I’m happy to wear the tag of uncool. Remember that wonderful scene in Almost Famous, when Lester Bangs (played magnificently by Philip Seymour Hoffman) where he explains how uncool people like he and William are? I see a chunk of stuff in that scene to associate with.

Being honest, indie publishers/editors aren’t cool. Not in the traditional sense of what cool is, not in the Lady Gaga/Madonna/Charles Bronson/Steve McQueen sense of cool. No regular teenager looks up to an indie publisher and says, “That’s what I want to do”. No regular teenager wants to dress, act or talk like me or anyone else crazy enough to do the indie press thing. Even the less cool regular teen might want to be a writer, but never a publisher.

There are some kids and grown-ups that want to enter the publishing industry, aspiring to be senior editors at HachetteOrbitCollins. I speak with some of these people, they send me their CVs, looking to get a foot up into the industry. I’m unaware of anyone ever starting a small press to climb the corporate ladder.

At some point I’ll probably put together some posts on what indie publishers actually do. Understandably it’s a little unusual. Suffice to say, it’s uncool. Writers are kind of cool. A lot of what they do is uncool — they sit in a room on their own tapping away at a computer. There is a glamour associated with what they do. Peoople want to be writers, because they think that what writers are and do is cool.

I’ve been doing this gig for a while now, long enough to have picked up a little respect for what I’ve done. I’ve hung out with the cool kids for a while, maybe even helped them to be cool. None of this makes me cool. I’ve done good stuff, I’m still doing good stuff. Some of our books are fantastic, the rest are awesome incarnate. None of this makes me cool.

I’m uncool, and I’m cool with that.

my pic

Below are a couple of shots I generally use for publicity or whatever. I generally only use the first one, as it’s a close up, but looking through other similar pics it occurs to me the second probably shows my face better. That’s not a bad thing really.

The photos were taken by me on Saturday, 10 October 2009. It would have been Kirsty MacColl’s 50th birthday. Instead, there is a bench in Soho Square, unveiled on 12 August 2001, paid for by her fans. I’ve visited this bench each time I’ve been to London, in 2005, 2009 and 2012. Being there, by myself, on Kirsty’s birthday was pretty special. It was a special day for me.

now you don’t see me . . .

. . . and now you see me.

The following day I was back by the bench, as part of an annual celebration of Kirsty’s work and life that takes place on the Sunday closest to her birthday. It was a real pleasure to meet Kirsty’s mum, brother and children, and to attempt to communicate how wonderful I think her music is.

(For homework, track down Kirsty MacColl’s 1993 album, Titanic Days, and listen to the song “Soho Square”. Listen to the whole album. And if you can’t find Titanic Days, you can get the track on her 2005 Best Of.)

Temporary Welcome

Hello. You’ve found the work in progress that should eventually be the semi-professional, semi-official web place for me, Russell B. Farr, editor and publisher at Ticonderoga Publications.

There’s not much to see now, but come back later and there should be a little more. It’s unlikely that this will ever be a must-read place to come because, let’s face it, editors and publishers are hardly the stuff of rock -stardom or reality teevee.

Uncool though I am, I’ll try to at least make this place interesting, if only in some nerdy, geeky kind of way.

And feel free to leave comments/questions/other feedback if you so wish.