Terry Pratchett is the best-selling fantasy author many people have never heard of. By the time he died in 2015, he had sold over 85 million books (based mostly on his Discworld series), and until JK Rowling rolled around, he was the best-selling author in Britain. Including his last book, The Shepherd’s Crown, he published over 41 Discworld books. Not to mention dozens of others in different genres and subgenres.
So who was this guy?
First, he wrote fantasy books. With a comic twist.
Now before some of you start groaning, these fantasy characters aren’t like anything you’ve ever read. First of all, they’re funny. There are dwarfs six feet high, vampires who’ve taken a pledge not to drink blood, and a witch who hates riding brooms.
Secondly, they have real depth. They come alive. They have idiosyncrasies and flaws, but what makes them so endearing is that we can see ourselves in them. They’re us. Granted, they’re us if we lived on a flat world supported by four elephants standing on an enormous tortoise that soars through the cosmos.
And they’re likable, including Death, which became one of his most beloved characters.
Are you still with me?
It’s not just the characters that draw fans to his series. In each novel, he managed to slip in some wry social commentary, allowing us to see our world reflected in his.
In Thud!, he draws attention to racial prejudices, taking aim at those who fan the flames of hatred against particular groups. In Equal Rites, he makes a case for equal opportunities for women way back in 1978. And in Small Gods, he has something to say about the misuse of religion for political (or personal) gains.
Besides everything mentioned above, few authors could mix science and fantasy with such flair. Of course on Discworld, science became magic. Tiny ants build sugar pyramids to their dead queen under the flagstones of the Unseen University. Magic causes light to slow down and take its time crossing Discworld, sometimes piling up at the foot of mountain ranges. Tantric sex magic books have to be stored under cold water to keep them from bursting into flames and “scorching their severely plain covers.” And of course, few can coin a phrase like him. In the bad parts of town in Ankh-Morpork, he has “ladies of negotiable affection” working the street.
These are not just silly, harmless fantasy romps. They make us think. And wonder. And laugh. All at the same time.
That’s an amazing legacy to leave behind.
(Postscript: The author himself, in his biographic-essay collection A Slip of the Keyboard suggests beginning Discworld readers not start with his first two books, The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic. True, as time went on, Mr. Pratchett’s writing became more masterful and in some cases, darker, but his first two entries are awfully darn good. If you want to start a bit later in his series, I suggest Hogfather and Mort.)
Now that the holidays are upon us, it’s time to deck the halls with boughs of holly and flesh-eating zombies. What better way to celebrate our annual bout of family dysfunction and commercial overconsumption than by reading a comedic tale of a coastal California town overrun by zombies brought to life by an inept angel. Throw in a C-grade movie star, a pot-smoking town sheriff and a repulsive Santa who takes a fatal shovel to the face and you have a heart-warming tale the whole family can enjoy. Brought to you by one of the funniest comic authors around: Christopher Moore. So buy it and curl up next to the fire with this very funny book. Just keep a shotgun by your side. Ho ho ho.
Project Gutenberg is a website that allows you to download classic works of literature for free as an ebook. Download them or read them online.
They have close to 50,000 titles, published, as they state, by bona fide publishers, carefully proofread and digitized, many with original illustrations.
Choose from Moby Dick, Tale of Two Cities, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dracula, Ulysses (Jame Joyce), The Iliad (Homer), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Alice in Wonderland, Pride and Prejudice…even The Prince, by Machiavelli.
And while you’re downloading great works of literature, make a small donation to their cause while you’re at it.
Here’s the Gutenberg link.
I haven’t read it, however.
I’m sure the plot is thrilling, but what fascinates me is the other story here: how the book became a book. Then a movie.
It goes pretty much like this:
The author, Andy Weir, wrote the science fiction novel about an astronaut stranded on Mars, waiting for a rescue that will take four years. It’s all about survival.
He originally posted the book, chapter by chapter on his no-frills website. His loyal followers were clamoring for somewhere on the Internet where they could download the whole thing in Kindle for free.
It turned out, there was such a place: Amazon e-books for self-published authors. It’s called Kindle Direct Publishing. But it wasn’t free. Amazon, required authors to charge a minimum of 99 cents, with Amazon getting 64 pennies per book, and him receiving 35.
He posted the book on Amazon for 99¢ and a miracle happened. Sales started slowly, but they soon climbed. Then took off. Within seven months, over 35,000 copies had been downloaded, even though the book was still available for free on his website (which required a little technical know-how to download it).
Throughout all this, he tried to get a literary agent, but no one would touch his novel. He approached publishers, too. No one was interested. He tried for three years.
A publisher, seeing the success of the book online, approached him and asked if he had an agent. When he said no, they suggested one. A short time later, he signed with agent David Fugate. Within four days, he was approached by a movie studio who wanted to option it. The movie premiered in October 2015, with Matt Damon starring and Ridley Scott as director. The rest is history.
Andy Weir writes full time, now.
He wasn’t the first author to take this self-published path to success. Author Hugh Howey did the same with his science fiction Wool series. Fifty Shades of Grey author E. L. James started on her own. Beatrix Potter self-published, too, with her Peter Rabbit books way back in 1901.
The moral of the story here isn’t that literary agents and publishers often can’t see a gold mine when it’s staring them right in the face. Or that the traditional path to getting a book in front of readers has being overturned.
It’s that these authors had an unshakeable belief in the tale they wanted to tell.
For me, that’s the real story.
Being a science-fiction comedy author, I decided to read John Scalzi’s Redshirts. It’s a thinly veiled parody of the original Star Trek television series, told from the viewpoint of the lesser members on the starship Intrepid. The plot centers on the character of ensign Andrew Dahl, who uncovers a sinister reality: senior members of landing parties always survive extraterrestrial encounters while ship members of lower rank—wearing signature red shirts—die terrible deaths.
The story is about Dahl’s attempt to change the course of fate. It’s a comedy poking fun at the science-fiction conventions of the TV series.
I’m not going to get into reviewing Scalzi’s book. There are plenty of reviews online…go read some of those. My opinion isn’t all that important. Either you’ll either love it or not. Me, I enjoyed it.
But it was my reaction to the book that surprised me the most. A reaction that arose when I started watching the original episodes of Star Trek on Netflix. I hadn’t seen them in decades.
I got angry. And the more I watched, the angrier I became. As each episode enfolded, I got angrier about the callous, arrogant way Kirk, Spock and Dr. McCoy paraded around, smug in the knowledge that they would always survive. They had become assholes. Meanwhile, the innocent, underdog redshirts would be zapped, strangled, gassed, crushed, speared and incinerated, then tossed away after a poignant but short speech made by Captain Kirk.
It was like I was seven years old and someone had told me there was no Santa Claus. I sat there stunned. Here was a TV series that I had grown to love as a child, watching it with my dad in one of the few bonding rituals I had with him. And now, the series had turned on me. Deceived me. Tricked me. There was more going on than I had ever suspected.
I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the reaction John Scalzi wanted in his readers when he wrote this book. It was probably just great fun, showing things from a different viewpoint. I’m a comedic writer…I should know better.
But I can’t help it. I still haven’t forgiven my parents for lying to me about the fat, jolly man who supposedly lived at the North Pole.
The lie was fun while it lasted, though.
A few months ago, I picked up David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest because I felt that I had to read it. I was late getting on the bandwagon, but I was intrigued from what I had heard about it–both good and bad.
I jumped in, struggled and gave up after 250 pages.
I saw these two little street lending libraries on Vista Street and Curson Avenue where I live in the Hollywood hills. It was wondrous to see someone else who loves books as much as I do–and is willing to share. For me, books opened up entire worlds I could escape into and explore, leaving me richer with each visit. As Thomas Jefferson said, “I cannot live without books.”
For me, I think I live because of books.
Here’s a fascinating book that highlights some of the most unusual libraries in the world: Improbable Libraries.
If you’re ever traveling between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, make a little jog off Highway 101 at Ventura and head 16 miles north to the tiny city of Ojai. Most people stop here for the city’s New-Age veneer, mountain vistas and almost-too-precious Spanish-style shopping arcade.
But that’s just the icing on the cake. For me, it’s Bart’s Books.
Basically, the owners of Bart’s books just removed the doors and windows from an old ranch house and put books everywhere they could fit. Inside rooms, under protective eaves, in what was probably an old porch or carport.
What makes it wonderful is a combination of things. First, all the books here are great. No junk. There are no trashy diet books for 50 cents with the cover half torn off. Or ghost-written biographies of flash-in-the-pan celebrities for a quarter. You’ll find Carl Hiaasen, Terry Pratchett, Jonathan Franzen, Steven Hawking, Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, Kinky Friedman, Christopher Moore. (My favorites in the fiction and science-fiction sections.) Brian Greene, Richard Dawkins, Roger Penrose, Christopher Hitchens in the various non-fiction areas.
Even better, most books sell for about $7, making it easy for me to indulge in my one substance abuse problem: buying more books than I can possibly read. Mass-market paperbacks are even less. I found Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye for $1.50.
My cherished section is the employee favorites, which recently moved to the right of the cashier desk. To the left is the Most Requested and Recently Published sections–also good places to look. Don’t forget to check them out. And inside, to the right of the front desk, is a small section of new books and first editions (cookbook too).
Second, as opposed to another great used book store up the road which I love (The Phoenix in San Luis Obispo), everything at Bart’s books is rigorously shelved in alphabetical order. No piles of books on the floor to rifle through in order to find something.
There’s even a decent kid’s section.
What makes it all come together is the fact that it’s mostly outdoors. And right in town. While you browse in the eternal sunshine of Ojai, you can hear red-tail hawks calling or woodpeckers hammering away in the treetops. There’s the requisite, resident cat, Pygmy (short for Pygmalion) that saunters throughout the store and likes to nap on the front desk.
302 W. Matilija
Ojai, CA 93023
Videogames, smartphones and tablets were supposed to kill off books. Young readers would no doubt abandon books for anything electronic.
Browsing the Barnes & Noble in Santa Monica yesterday, I got a different view of the future. Teens and Young Adult readers now have their own tables and sections. Publishers have entire divisions dedicated to them. Kids today might be the most tech-savvy generation yet, but they apparently have a taste for a good old-fashioned story.