Friday, 22 August 2014

Subscription services – good or evil?

Technology has driven huge changes in the way that we purchase and use media. Subscription services have been hugely successful for films, to the point of driving Blockbuster into extinction. Videogames are now dipping their toe into the waters of subscription, with the PS4 and EA having their own models (interesting because the EA deal isn’t available on the PS4, and we’re seeing the console manufacturers themselves and individual [albeit very large] studios trying their hand at it).

It’s worth mentioning that certain new technological developments seem very popular (Photo Mode in the Remastered version of The Last Of Us, and easy screenshots/video capture on the new consoles) whereas others (always on internet, Kinect) were derided so much they were dropped or made optional.

Now subscription services are coming to books.

Since e-readers and superior screens first came out an industry which was almost unchanged (from a consumer perspective) since the first printing presses has undergone substantial change. Books can now be purchased for less via the internet, and sometimes for free.

However, e-books have presented a substantial challenge to publishers, and traditional bookstores have had to try and deal with this whilst at the same time competing with the behemoth that is Amazon.

Authors have never had it so easy when it comes to getting published (you can, almost literally, do it yourself). However, getting noticed has perhaps never been harder, because there are so many new authors each individual is a small drop in an ever larger ocean.

Despite publishing my own stuff (and hopefully getting some traditionally published work out there soon), I am immensely old-fashioned. I don’t even own a mobile phone, and think DLC is the work of Satan.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that I’m worried about subscription services. The rate of remuneration for authors is a serious concern, and how it will affect publishers. Will we see individual publishers setting up their own services (akin to EA in videogames)? Will some content (perhaps short stories) become available only via subscription?

Consumer behaviour will be critical to the success or failure of any model. The pricing of a subscription (probably annual, given a monthly approach would only be of use to voracious readers) will be a major factor, but there’s the rub. If the fee is low, how can authors expect to make more than a pittance? If the fee is high, then people will opt to buy individual books because it’ll work out cheaper.

Things are already difficult for smaller publishers and new authors, and if the ‘big boys’ end up dominating a new subscription-based landscape then it could become a gated community. A decade or two ago agents and publishers were gatekeepers, deciding who was worthy and unworthy to be published. We can argue the toss about whether that was better than the self-publishing world we now have, but things have changed.

If major publishers and/or retailers start pushing for subscription in various ways (such as hiking the prices of their books so the subscription fee looks relatively more reasonable, or making later series instalments available only via subscription) then readers may stop scouring virtual bookshelves for individual books they want and instead opt for one or two subscriptions.

It just feels inherently wrong, to me. If someone writes a book you like, buy it, and they get some money (the retailer and agent/publisher also taking a slice). The seller, creator and middlemen all get a slice of the cake. If retailers and publishers shift to subscription I feel the author’s slice will become smaller.

And the harder it is for authors to make any money, the less likely it is we’ll have more good writers.

Maybe I’m wrong, and my instinctive distrust of changes in this area is just my spidey sense tingling for no good reason. But right now, I’m suspicious.


Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Succession Matters

Marcus Aurelius is often held up as an example of a great emperor, the last in the Golden Age of Imperial Rome which began with Nerva and included Trajan, Hadrian and Antoninus Pius. Similarly, Basil II was perhaps the single most forceful emperor in Byzantine history and, after an initial defeat, accomplished innumerable military successes.

Yet both were responsible in large part for the decline and ultimate fall of their respective empires.

Succession is a critical issue in the ancient and medieval worlds. It wasn’t a problem unique to the Roman Empires. Caliphates and Sultanates often descended into brief civil wars over succession as well.

The Golden Age saw emperor after emperor nominate his own successor. During this prolonged period of prosperity for the Empire men of worth were promoted, and the peace (for Rome, at least) enabled a strong class of loyal and successful men to build up.

Marcus Aurelius buggered it up on a permanent basis. His first co-emperor was Lucius Verus. Verus wasn’t especially bad, a bit of a boozy fellow but not a vicious lunatic. Verus died, and Marcus Aurelius then named as his successor his son, Commodus (made famous by the excellent film Gladiator). The Commodus of reality was not that different to that of the film (probably a bit bloodthirstier and more competent as a warrior, actually). He killed a significant number of senators who should have been serving the Empire, and was so bad he ended up being assassinated, and replaced by a short-lived successor who was toppled by the Praetorian Guard.

From that point on the imperial seat became the plaything of the army, to a greater or lesser extent. No period of imperial adoption recurred, and the Empire began a steady spiral of decline, occasionally delayed and only once truly reversed (with the excellent Danubian general-emperors such as the Gothic Claudius and Aurelian), but that was a brief respite.

Basil II’s case is a little odder. He had been officially emperor for a long time before he really took on the job, as a number of successful generals seized the throne but also shared it with him (they ran the Byzantine Empire but, slightly unusually, did nothing to harm the ‘official’ imperial family, which was Basil and his younger brother Constantine).

Basil never married or had any children. He may have been gay or simply disinterested (whilst unusual, something like 1% of people are asexual). His brother was technically co-emperor but was happy to spend his time in luxury whilst Basil actually ran things, and he also had several nieces to guarantee the family line would continue (worth pointing out the Macedonian Dynasty, of which he was a member, had been going for over a century at this point).

It would have been better if he had had children, and his brother had not. When Basil died, his brother took the reins and proved seriously inept. The shortness of his reign did limit the damage he could do, but Basil’s niece, Zoe, ended up having various marriages to those who aspired to the throne, and they tended to be bloody awful.

Byzantium underwent incompetence and turmoil (with a brief respite for Isaac Comnenus who sadly reigned only two years) until Alexius Comnenus (Isaac’s nephew) came to power. By then, the Empire was in bad shape. Assailed by the Norman adventurer Robert Guiscard (who destroyed forever the Byzantine presence in Italy), having to cope with the First Crusade (which proved at least less damaging than the Fourth...) and struggling to regain the Anatolian territory which had formed the heart of the Empire’s manpower, Alexius and his two successors performed admirably.

But the years between Basil II and Alexius had taken a permanent toll. Venice had dominion over the seas, Italy was lost forever, and the Turks were getting ever closer to the city itself.

Basil II, as emperor, was almost an unmitigated success. He utterly dominated the Empire, crushed his enemies and was absolutely devoted to his army, which he transformed from the dregs of civilisation to the most formidable force in the world.

But when it came to the succession he failed. His brother was clearly disinterested, and he had no nephew to take the reins directly (instead Zoe was used to assume power repeatedly).

Both Marcus Aurelius and Basil II are often considered amongst the finest of emperors. I find the former particularly overrated, for Basil’s error was perhaps more explicable (his brother would continue a long-running and successful dynasty whereas Marcus Aurelius ended the adoptive approach in favour of an incestuous psychotic) and he was more impressive as an emperor. But it goes to show that whilst the lack of an heir could lead to chaos, dissent and civil war, the presence of incompetent successors was even worse.


Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Review: On Basilisk Station, by David Weber

This is the first book in the Honor Harrington series and (like the second) has the delightful quality of being free as an e-book (on Amazon, not sure about elsewhere).

Sci-fi’s not my usual fare, but I thought I’d give it a crack.

It’s a sci-fi story following, unsurprisingly, Honor Harrington, a commander in the Manticoran Navy who has just been given command of the light cruiser Fearless. Due to political tussling between two rival factions she ends up being almost exiled to Basilisk Station, a role so tedious it’s seen as a punishment to be stationed there.

Not being a regular sci-fi reader it’s difficult for me to assess how ‘hard’ it is. My own view is that it’s only slightly in that direction. There’s a reasonably small amount of technical jargon about impeller drives and whatnot, but not so much it swamps the story or you feel you need a degree in physics just to keep up.

One of the book’s strengths is that it isn’t simply about Honor. The secondary cast is numerous and many of them are quite well-established, which helps to make it feel like the universe the author’s describing is populated by actual people rather than two-dimensional creatures that only matter in so far as Honor happens to know them.

The perspective often leaves Honor and moves to one of her subordinate officers or adversaries. This helps to carry the story without having her be directly involved in everything, although occasionally (particularly near the end) there are numerous jumps between her perspective and another’s, and it’s not always obvious when it’s occurred.

Now and then there are slabs of information, often several pages long, explaining something like the political situation or how starship engines work. Some of them could be weaved better into the story (showing rather than telling) but for the political stuff there’s probably no other way to get it across (except perhaps breaking it into smaller more numerous pieces).

I quite like the universe that’s been set up. Although only a couple of powers are described in any detail it sounds interestingly poised. The human race appears to be the only player, which avoids both the difficulty of introducing new species but also the opportunities they would bring.

Overall, I liked On Basilisk Station. It’s not perfect, there are some info-dumps, Honor’s a little too flawless, but it’s well-written, the crescendo at the end was very well done, and the political situation was set up very nicely.