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An Interview with Book View Cafe’s Amy Sterling

When Book View Café (BCV) launched back on November 18th I was most surprised to see this rather large list of published authors who have signed up to be contributors. The list includes established authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin and rising newcomers such as Sylvia Kelso. I was immediately intrigued; why have these authors all come together in this way? What are they hoping to accomplish? And, why are they all women?

With these and other questions in mind, I set out to interview Amy Sterling, the author who brought the launch to our attention. Lucky for me (and you!) she consented to give us a behind-the scenes look at the new venture.

SF Signal: First, how did this all get started?

Amy: After a lot of discussions in recent months about alternative types of publishing and cooperative writing, some of us who have been writing friends for a long time decided to get together and take charge of our creative lives. The main impetus came out of the SF-FFW’s, an informal group of professional science fiction and fantasy female writers that has been together about five years. Sarah Zettel took the leadership, but I’m proud to say that I think it was an encouraging message from me that was part of the spark.

SF Signal: How long did it take to get going once you decided to make it happen?

Amy: The idea was first discussed in April – so it has been about 6 to 7 months. Our launch was originally planned for September. We also coordinated with the iPhone application TextOnPhone, and the combination of this and their planned fall subscriber push encouraged our November 15 launch.

SF Signal: What are you hoping to accomplish with the site? Is it simply a venue for less traditional fiction or something else?

Amy: It isn’t a venue for less traditional fiction, it’s a venue for all of us to pool our creative efforts and power, and offer us new opportunities for creativity, and reaching new audiences. For example, you can see that Ursula Le Guin illustrated the story by Vonda McIntyre. We are offering previously-published material to the internet audience, and as time goes on, I think many people are planning to offer special, premium or “extra” content for small fees, for dedicated readers. It could be thought less traditional in the sense that the site is not relying on any type of specialized packaging, and is instead offering a cooperative location for fiction, podcasts, blogging, and other types of content that is produced by our members, who are all professional SF/F writers ranging from worldwide masters of the form and recognized literary giants like Ursula Le Guin, to slugs such as myself.

SF Signal: I think I understand what you mean about a way to pool creative efforts and put a similar set of genre writing all in one place. But what new audiences are you hoping to reach? And what would you say is your measure of success?

Amy: I think the idea of “new audiences” will definitely vary from writer to writer. When new writers join after the launch, I’m sure they’ll have their own ideas of what sorts of new readers they’d like to read. I’ve been primarily known as a short fiction writer. I am looking at BVC to reach new readers who don’t read short science fiction or fantasy, because I am working on a very substantial, exciting new series of fantasy books. It’s a new voice for me, and a new type of writing. I’m also illustrating the weekly blog posts of the “creatiary,” which are creatures from the fantasy world of my books. Right now, I think we’re just looking at general readership visiting BVC as “success.” If people begin to obtain new opportunities from the site — new readers, new “listeners” for podcasts, and so-on — that has to be success. In my case, I am “coming out of the closet” as it were, as an artist and as a fantasy novelist. The BVC logo and banner was designed by me, and the creatiary is my own digital art and writing, every Tuesday.

SF Signal: Who is the driving force behind the co-op? Was there one person who pushed and made it happen?

Amy: Sarah Zettel really took leadership, and her desire to do so came out of a desire to take charge of her creativity and work directly with her readership. I think as a group, we all realized that among us were such a diverse range of talents, and that there was no reason we should simply sit back and rely upon traditional publishing outlets completely. We thought that we could create something new, different, and dynamic for both us as writers, and for readers and others visiting. Others who really did so much (all members have really helped) are Maya Bohnhoff, Sue Lange, Vonda McIntyre, and Nancy Jane Moore, who is coordinating the blog. Irene Radford/Phyl Radford (AKA P.R. Frost) has done calendaring and scheduling as well. I did the better sorts of artwork . That was entirely an accident, I assure you (the banner, the favicon, etc.). You can see more of my poor quality efforts – every Tuesday on the blog I am doing a “Creatiary,” which are basically creatures out of my fantasy novel or my entirely too-twisted mind, and it’s really not even me, but this dead guy named Lalume who keeps materializing and taking over my laptop and even fooling with my Wacom tablet and DRAWING and stuff.

SF Signal: I think you dost protest too much. That gryphon1 in the first Creatiary post is fantastic. I can’t help but notice that all the authors in the co-op are women (and as I’ve said elsewhere I’m not sure what that says about me) – is there a story behind that?

Amy: Yes, see above. Since we were forming a co-op, we did limit the initial membership to this initial group, but after things are worked out, many of our friends who are NOT female have already asked and we are planning on welcoming new members of both genders as soon as feasible when the “kinks” are worked out. Basically, all those folks, guys included, just missed out on the hard work and will hopefully reap great rewards.

SF Signal: So there’s a hint to other authors – get your request in now if you’re hoping to be a part of this. Moving on to some technical details, will the works published here be available elsewhere, or is the content going to be exclusive to Book View Café?

Amy: Very little is exclusive at this point – most of us are using pre-published material. However, SOME content is exclusive and that varies from author to author. Any premium or pay content will certainly be exclusive. In my case, readers can look at four chapters of my new novel. And it, rather oddly, seems to be very good. But it’s probably because this fellow Lalume really wrote it. This will not be found elsewhere. If I podcast something with Bruce Coville, for example, we might put it out as a special Book View podcast of totally substandard tripe for one’s children who can only be dragged from their Wii by the absolute most abominable gaseous exhalations of nonsense. That would be very exclusive.

SF Signal: Can you explain how you envision the premium or pay-for content working?

Amy: I think most people are planning to offer an entire novel free chapter by chapter, but on asking for a modest (competitive with actual ebook sellers who sell ebooks instead of extremely overpriced editions such as some publishers offer) ebook download fee for the entire book all at once. Authors with series or with popular characters will certainly offer “extras” such as additional chapters, background information, and so-on. We have a pay system set up and are going to institute it following the initial launch. We have a considerable amount of content scheduled for the next three months, and with new members and so-on, there will be a good balance of plenty of free writing and creative material, and some “extras” not available elsewhere for pay. That’s the concept.

SF Signal: Will readers have the rights to transfer works to my PDA or offline book reader (Kindle or some such)?

Amy: We’re releasing under creative commons (though this is up to the individual author and you may find someone stating that respectfully, bleh bleh – don’t do it). Certainly you may use any way you wish for your individual use under the majority of situations, just don’t duplicate it yourself or attempt to sell it secondarily (that type of Creative Commons license).

SF Signal: Will the works have some form of DRM to protect them?

Amy: No.

SF Signal: Yea! In general, I’m not a big fan of current DRM technology despite being quite fond of authors getting paid to write. The FAQ license is pretty simple and you mentioned creative commons as a license model. Do you feel this is adequate protection for your efforts?

Amy: Absolutely. We are looking at that – frankly – the vast majority of us have moved beyond this type of thing – nobody thinks anybody is going to copy somebody’s book web page by web page and then print and bind their own edition. Most of us are aware that pirated ebooks are just bulk text copies and essentially worthless except for trading or publicity value. We’re looking to gain online and eventually, instore readers.

SF Signal: So you have collectively decided that some online free works will drive physical book sales?

Amy: I think a number of writers have shown that this is not only possible, but a likely result, under the right circumstances. I remember Doug Clegg’s initial success at this. Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi also have excelled with their work, online and in-store.

In my individual case, I don’t want to necessarily think of the “model” exactly like that. I really do a number of different things with my writing and I write fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and other forms (except I haven’t gotten around to pushing screenplays under bathroom doors at the Geisha House – better get going with that next week!). Because of the nature of the traditional publishing world, there are very few people who write and illustrate their own books. Bottom line: we only have so much time available. I want to do the work that I love and believe in, and BVC gives me the opportunity to work closer to “real time” and to have the work evolving and growing right with the audience. I really love and believe in what I’m doing right now and this is providing me with a launch pad or platform and so far – it seems to be going great.

I wouldn’t have thought myself to be an iconoclast, but I suppose I really am. I don’t think that great books were ever written by somebody looking at someone else’s success and seeking to slavishly imitate it. I don’t think that great books were written without passion and total commitment. A great piece of work compels and commands. I think we have a lot of examples in our field, and in writing in general, where really cool books and stories that have stood the test of time had fairly slow, odd, or unusual “starts” in life, from Frank Herbert’s Dune being published by Chilton Auto Manuals to Tom Clancy’s first technothriller being published by the Naval Institute. Both of those could be called “unconventional starts” in their day So I think that this offers a platform for an unconventional start for what could be any number of fantastic things. I have every Tuesday on the BVC blog and every Tuesday is written and illustrated by somebody from the Wide World – the world of my fantasy books – as if this grand Conjurer had come across the interwebs for the very first time.

I don’t know if this new co-op web site for fiction will turn out to be a watershed moment in the advancement of fiction in a new world, or if it is just another step along the way, but I do know that I’m going to be pulling for them. I believe there is going to be a shift soon where fiction moves in the direction of non-fiction and becomes a mostly digital exercise. Book View Café is on the leading edge and one to keep an eye on.

1 Image of Fire Gryphon ‘Humphree’ is © Amy Sterling.

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