When should I remove books from sale?

There are a few of my earlier novels that I’m growing unhappy with (from memory rather than having time to reread). They could probably do with at the least tidying up the language, and possibly a larger overhaul.

Since I don’t have the time (or the enthusiasm) to redo them properly, I’ve been wondering a while whether or not to remove them from sale, but just can’t decide. If they’re the first of my books someone tries, could the areas in which they’re lacking discourage the reader trying any of my later work, which they may find more enjoyable?

In trying to build myself up as a brand, is it better to have only my very best stuff available, or a large catalogue that may not be entirely top shelf (not that I think they were badly written for my writing skill at the time, or that they don’t have merit, they’re just things that the (lazy) perfectionist in me gets irritated by)?

Broken Worlds feels structurally wrong, as well as probably needing a textual overhaul. It turned out episodic, which was fine for what I was aiming for at the time, but now niggles at me. It’d require a serious overhaul. The ideas in it do form the connective tissue between a number of my other books, and it outlines part of the underlying philosophy influencing my worldview. Removing it isn’t going to harm the others, so shouldn’t be a reason for keeping it available.

Rainbows in Eclipse is less clear in its wrongness. While the text could inevitably do with an upcrafting, I’m not sure what else needs changing. It does have a lot of viewpoints, but there’d be no way to alter that without cutting a lot. I’d probably have to reread it to try and get an idea of what feels wrong (and the feeling may well be due to senility and neuroses), and that would inevitably lead to tinkering that I really don’t want to spend time on.

Allegiances could probably also do with a polish, but I’m otherwise happy with it, so don’t feel any need to remove it from sale.

At some point or other I feel this way about most of my books though, and the next day I may change my mind. Since I feel my writing craft is always improving, I should just remove books from sale as soon as the next one is ready to publish, but that’s nonsense.

So should I remove them from sale?

Of course removing them from sale wouldn’t make them unavailable. There could still be pirated copies out there. Removing them from sale would mean anyone who wanted to read them (assuming that should ever become a relevant, or indeed positive, number of people) would have to download an illegal copy. Depriving me of revenue, and supporting the pirating industry.

The problem is that I have conflicting feelings over them, and no way to impartially judge my own work. So I’ll probably just keep on procrastinating the decision and leave them up a while longer (barring a flood of negative reviews for them, which would at least be some kind of indicator).



Next month is NaNoWriMo, so there’s unlikely to be much here. At least for the first couple of weeks. I might tweet my progress, and it can be found here , as I complete the final stories in the Tales of the Thief-City series.

Examination of a failure: Steel Cages

Here’s the creative process for Steel Cages, the short story I posted yesterday.

This was done for a short story contest to write something based on the phrase ‘Steel Cities. Since I was in a fantasy mood at the time, that was the way my thoughts went.


Thought Process

Steel is an alloy of iron and other metals. What interesting effects could it have if alloyed with exotic metals? Why would a fantasy setting have a city built of steel, given the economics?

Iron is supposed to put off faeries. In a world infested with them cities would need iron to offer protection, so they’d make the cost work, or, more likely, there be rationing so the richer classes got the good protection and the poor had to fend for themselves.

If iron’s so valuable, alloying it would enable the resources to be stretched. It’d still be limited, and a reason for most people to live in cities, where steel (covered) walls could protect them.

Not everyone could though, not all the time anyway, as food would need to be grown outside, and mining would obviously be necessary (mountainous regions with the necessary iron deposits would be relatively free of the fae though). So every city would have an enclosed section (heavily policed) where outsiders could come to trade.

Would there therefore be different classes of citizenry, with those outside the cities having – or being suspected of having – fae blood?

And how would it effect the economics of employment? With so many living in cities, there’d need to be employment, so the setting would be forced from a heavily agricultural old fashioned setting. Forced being the operative word, with the strain no doubt offering story opportunities.


The Story

The obvious way to show the details of the settings (in 3000 words) was to have an outsider with fae blood try to get into the city. In such a short story I didn’t want to go beyond two POV characters, and one would be better. I was inclined towards someone of fae blood, since the infiltration is the active part of the story, and it’d give the opportunity to examine the effect iron has on them.

I wanted to keep it light and not too action-packed, since my previous fantasy short stories have tended to be darker, actiony tales.


Initial Failure

It didn’t win, but the contest did provide feedback. The main problem I took away from it was not enough world-building. Which is fair. The story kind of took over, at the expense of the world-building. I kind of looked at some aspects of the society, but it was by the nature of the POV prevented from really covering life inside the city.

And I went nowhere with the different alloy properties.

Were I expanding the setting into a larger story (a possibility, but not an immediate one), this is probably where I’d develop a magic system. A weapon-based magic would be the obvious choice, but I’d have to think more about it.

Going further into the city could have helped explore more of that side of things, but that would have veered the story towards darker territory, and needed more space than the word limit would really allow. Possibly the general setting could have done with being more limited, say leaving out the fae element and focussing on the varieties of steel. But that feels relatively flavourless.



I tinkered with it some more, but unfortunately by this point the shape of the story was too fixed in my mind. To redo it as something that would work would require basically a different story, and I haven’t the interest (at the moment) to put in the effort.

The last version I can be bothered with is what I posted yesterday. I can’t get satisfied with it, even apart from the lack of world-building. The reveal takes a bit too long to explain what was really going on. An earlier version explained it faster in his thoughts, but was a bit too telly rather than showy, and just didn’t work. Not that this feels much better.



Steel Cages

Here’s a short story I’ve given up on getting into a satisfactory state. Tomorrow I’ll post some notes on its development, and why it doesn’t work for me.


Steel Cages

Arran couldn’t suppress a shiver as he drove the wagon towards the steel-lined gates. He kept his nerves firmly under control, so as not to give the guards reason for suspicion – beyond what his being from the countryside would naturally arouse.

He couldn’t help staring at Irondell’s gates. It was the first city he’d seen this close. There was a reason for that, of course. He could almost taste the iron. The gates and outer walls had high concentrations, to discourage the fae-blooded from approaching. The thought of all the iron made him want to ride hard in the opposite direction. Tightening his grip on the reins, he assured himself he wouldn’t hang around longer than necessary.

A guard came forward to meet him, staring with what hard-faced ire he could muster. ‘What’re you carrying?’

‘Meat,’ said Arran. The shape of the wrapped bundles should’ve given it away, even if the Barnley family symbol on the wagon wasn’t familiar here. Did the guard expect to trip him up on something so basic?

Adopting a vacuous smile as the guard examined the wagon, Arran couldn’t help glancing at the walls. He kept discomfort from his face, but awe at the scale of the city would be fine. Let them think him a country bumpkin.

The awe was tempered with unease at the thought of living somewhere so confined, quite apart from it being laced with iron. He had trouble believing people willingly suffered this, just for fear of what may lay beyond. Not that he wanted them venturing outside, cluttering up the countryside, but he didn’t think he could live this kind of crowded life.

Finding nothing, the guard returned to staring at Arran. Was he actually suspicious, or did he just enjoy this? Soon enough, having apparently done his duty, he shrugged and waved the wagon through.

Nodding his thanks, to an indifferent reception, Arran prodded the horses.

Passing through the gates he felt suddenly constricted, barely catching an involuntary shudder. He didn’t glance to see if the guards had noticed. If they had, the damage was done; if not, he could look suspicious. He focused his attention on the trading enclave, as far into the city as he’d be allowed.

Despite the need to trade with rural areas, city folk didn’t trust anyone from the countryside, believing they all had fae blood. While Arran had a fair bit, most had barely enough to feel a tickle kissing iron.

The metal had become the primary defence for cities to prevent faeries abducting and replacing people. Leaving them to prey on country folk. To conserve resources, they alloyed iron with other metals so the various steels covered more surfaces. The different varieties had different strengths, and which type a house was caked with indicated the wealth of its inhabitants.

According to rumours, anyway. Country folk weren’t allowed in the city proper, so whether all houses had iron shielding as was rumoured he couldn’t be sure. Most stories came from those banished from cities, either for crimes or overcrowding, and that kind couldn’t be trusted.

Irondell probably had a better chance of it than other cities, being on the edge of the Greyspear mountains – or the Faeriebanes, as they were called these days – which had the largest known deposits of iron. Arran had felt their oppressive presence on his approach, though that’d just be in his mind.

If they could raise and harvest their own food within the city, they’d probably shut themselves off completely from the danger of contamination. Until then, they had to deal with country folk, so they set up quarantined trading enclaves on the city’s edge. Monitored and patrolled enclaves.

This early, only a few stalls were occupied. Thankfully not by anyone he recognised. Mainly locals, he imagined. Livestock farmers, which was what the land here was best suited for.

That’d make it harder for him to sell. The city folk’d prefer outsiders they were familiar with. He may have to drop prices to break in.

New markets took time, and the Barnleys rarely came this far west. But rumours of poor breeding seasons over this way had drawn their interest. The other stalls gave lie to the rumour. Still, the family would hardly resist the opportunity to break into a market where the cursed Sycombes did a good trade with their crops.

He chose a vacant stall apart from the others and pulled the horse up alongside.

Arran had unloaded barely half the salted carcasses when guards arrived. The one in the lead had no armour, just a dark uniform and a darker glare. A steeleye – an inspector vigilant for faerie activity. Arran’s first. Given how little faerie activity the countryside had seen in the last decades, it was doubtful steeleyes served any real purpose. Other than to intimidate country folk.

Suppressing his anxieties, Arran offered a smile.

The steeleye didn’t return it, or speak. His hard gaze swept over the meat. He unwrapped one. A coin emerged from his pocket, the iron in it almost burning Arran’s eyes to look at. He managed not to react. Considering the effect of the diluted iron surrounding them, the coin must be pure.

The coin was placed on the meat, and Arran reminded himself to breathe. When had they started doing this? The coin came off and the meat was unchanged. He didn’t exhale quite as deeply as he could.

The steeleye opened another, repeating the process. Again it had no effect, other that straining Arran’s nerves. The steeleye gave a slight nod, although his mouth seemed less than happy. The coin didn’t go away, and the steeleye met Arran’s gaze. Had he let something show?

Approaching the wagon, the steeleye took a bundle from near the bottom. Yanking the wrapping open he placed the coin on the meat. For a few seconds everything seemed the same, and he went to remove it.

A wisp of smoke drifted up. The steeleye hesitated, before removing the coin to reveal a burn where there’d previously been clean flesh.

His gaze returned to Arran. The steeleye said nothing, gesturing to the guards.

Damn. He’d hoped to be gone before they realised. It took effort to suppress the growing panic. This’d always been a possibility, albeit one he’d avoided dwelling on. He’d simply have to talk his way out. It wasn’t as though they executed fae-blooded these days. None he’d heard of. And it wasn’t as though he had much choice.

The guards grabbed Arran’s arms and dragged him away. Their steel breastplates almost burned through his sleeves as he rubbed against them. More guards reinforced them, not wanting to risk him getting loose and abducting city folk.


The prison wasn’t as bad as he’d feared. You heard stories of cages made entirely of iron, with nothing between you and them. Possibly they’d move him to one of them any minute, but for now he was in a solidly stone cell. The door and bars on the window had iron, but staying to the middle of the room he experienced only mild discomfort. It’d been worse in the enclave. Of course out there he’d had the fear of being uncovered.

They left him a while – probably longer than necessary. It was a few hours later when the steeleye entered. A pair of guards watched from the doorway.

‘Your name?’ said the steeleye.

‘Timus Barnley,’ said Arran. The surname they’d assume from the wagon, but there was no reason to give his real first name.

The steeleye held out the coin. ‘Take it.’

Arran stared at it, then at the steeleye.

‘Take it,’ said the steeleye.

‘I’ve got fae blood,’ Arran admitted.

‘I need to know how much. Take it.’

They’d force it on him if he didn’t. While it wouldn’t be pleasant, at least this way he’d have some control. Arran reluctantly took the coin. It burned as his fingers grazed it.

That wasn’t enough for the steeleye. Grabbing Arran’s hand, he closed it around the coin. Agony lanced up his arm, and he nearly collapsed when the steeleye released him.

The coin fell, the steeleye catching it before it hit the ground. He stepped back and waited for Arran to recover.

‘Now, tell us about the infected meat,’ said the steeleye. There was a slight quiver to his voice. It took Arran a moment to notice, but when he managed to focus his vision he saw the calm on the steeleye’s face was forced. He’d probably never met anyone with any real fae blood. This was new to him too.

‘I didn’t know it was infected.’

The steeleye recovered his confidence. ‘Your blood makes you prone to trickery and cheating, so you’ll understand my disbelief.’

‘If we were trying to sneak infected meat in, don’t you think we’d have sent someone without fae blood to avoid suspicion?’ said Arran.

‘That raises another interesting point. Why would you come here at all? It can’t be comfortable.’

‘Lynd was meant to bring them. He’s not feeling well, so I took his place.’ Lynd wouldn’t be feeling much of anything for a while, considering what he’d drunk.

‘You’re pleading ignorance?’

‘I’m saying I don’t know anything about the meat,’ said Arran.

‘Do you know why it’s being brought to a city where your family don’t normally trade?’

Arran shrugged. ‘New market. We’ve had a few good years with livestock, so there’s more than the regular places’ll take.’

The steeleye was unconvinced, his uncertainty fully suppressed. ‘Still I find myself doubting your every word. Do you know why? Because you weren’t surprised the meat was fae-infected.’

Arran couldn’t think of a response that’d convince them. He wondered if they’d keep him here, locked up, until they were satisfied with his answer. What would they do with him then? Releasing him would be his preference, obviously, but the longer he held out the less likely that seemed. Glancing at the coin, he didn’t think torture would be out of line. Could he use the opportunity?

The steeleye’s glare pinned him in place.

Arran didn’t have to fake his deflation as he backed against the wall.

‘The faeries’ve been around,’ he said. ‘They’ve started messing with the cattle.’

The steeleye gave a slight nod. City folk always suspected faerie of something. ‘So you tried to offload it somewhere you don’t normally trade?’ said the steeleye.

Arran nodded.

‘You think it won’t reach the other cities? You think we won’t tell them?’

Arran stared at the floor. ‘What’ll you do to me?’

The silence wasn’t pleasant, but Arran didn’t think the steeleye’d be needlessly cruel. If he was to be punished they wouldn’t also stretch this out. He hoped.

The steeleye nodded to the guards, and they advanced on Arran.


The pain from contact with the guards’ breastplates battled with Arran’s growing sense of hope as they dragged him through the deserted enclave. That they were headed out of the city might be a good thing. Then again, they wouldn’t want to spill fae blood inside the city.

The smell of burning meat met them. Passing through the gates he saw guards supervising the pyre of his stock.

The escorts threw him stumbling towards the wagon. He resisted the impulse to soothe the burning to his arms. It’d wait until he was out of sight.

‘Never return,’ said the steeleye. ‘The other cities will be notified of your family’s actions. None of you are welcome here.’

Under their hard gazes, Arran clambered onto the wagon and set off.


The likely repercussions didn’t allow him much sleep, and Arran lay considering them the next morning as he listened to Lynd stumble and grumble into daylight.

Rumours of infected meat would spread through the cities. Travel between them was uncommon, and only done in secure caravans, but they saw themselves as united against the fae threat. It’d take a while for them to decide on a course of action, but until then they wouldn’t buy meat, no matter how thorough their checks.

So Barnley trade would suffer, as would the other livestock farmers. While crop farmers like the Sycombes would reap the benefits.

An inarticulate shriek of alarm came from outside. Arran suppressed a smile as he rose. With a reasonable appearance of bleariness, he stumbled from the barn, shielding his eyes.

‘The meat’s gone,’ said Lynd. His disoriented gaze turned to suspicion as it settled on Arran.

Arran frowned. ‘Yes. It’ll be in Irondell, where you sold it yesterday.’

Lynd’s expression grew puzzled. Then doubtful. ‘Yesterday? Yesterday I left home and met you in the evening and we came here and drank.’

‘Possibly a bit too much,’ Arran shook his head. ‘I knew you were the worse for it, but forgetting the whole day?’ With what Arran had slipped in his drink, Lynd had slept through the day.

‘I went to Irondell?’ Lynd remained doubtful.

‘And did well to judge by the moneybag,’ Arran nodded back into the barn.

Lynd stumbled towards the promised evidence, none too certain of his feet.

Arran gave another glance at the wagons before following him in, but he’d made certain to clean everything up. He’d gone down the road a ways before using the faerie dust, so there’d be no traces here that he’d soaked it into the meat to give the impression of infection – city folk’d believe pretty much anything involving faeries, and since they’d never venture out of their fortresses, they hadn’t a clue as to the truth.

The shade of the barn took a moment for his eyes to readjust to after the sun. Lynd sat by the bag with a disbelieving smile developing.

‘You really did drink a bit too much, didn’t you?’ Arran said as he settled down and grabbed a bottle.

‘Must have,’ Lynd said absently.

‘You won’t want more from the last bottle then?’

That got his attention.

‘I wouldn’t say that,’ said Lynd. ‘It’d be wrong not to celebrate.’ He accepted the bottle and took a long swig, then held it out for Arran. ‘You know, you’re all right. For a Sycombe. Not at all the shifty manipulator everyone says you are.’

‘I’ll drink to that.’



What’s Wrong with the Ultimate Universe

Marvel Comics’ Ultimate imprint has appeared to be struggling for a while now, and my enjoyment of it waning.

It was started as a continuity-free reinvention of the Marvel Universe alongside the regular comics (after 14 years the continuity-free element is pretty much dead), and in the early days did have interesting stuff.

Ultimate Spider-Man has remained consistently enjoyable, likely due to a stable creative team for so long, and the original writer still on the title even with a different lead.

The Ultimates was also strong when Millar was writing it, and has basically served as the model for the Marvel Movie Universe. It felt fresh in its details, as did his run on Ultimate X-Men, where the non-combat bits to do with the school activities felt fresh.

The problems started when other writers came on to the characters who didn’t necessarily give them the same feel. To me some of the titles started reverting to standard superhero tales that you’d find in the mainstream universe, which kind of defeated the purpose.

Not that I didn’t enjoy later writers: Hickman’s Ultimates and preceding mini-series used the setting for truly interesting stories that you couldn’t get away with in the mainstream comics because of how they changed the world. This felt like what the Ultimate universe could really be used for.

But sales possibly didn’t agree, so they did what they always seem to do when the Ultimate comics dropped off in sales: they had an Event.

While some of their Events haven’t been too bad (the Ultimate Galactus trilogy was good, and Ultimate Power was enjoyable), they have become fairly pedestrian. Have a big incident bringing together characters from all books; change some and kill off others. It all gets to feel too artificial. And the Universe doesn’t really have enough characters to go killing a handful at a time in the name of shoring up sales, especially since they’ve resisted bringing characters back from the dead. Events like Ultimatum and Cataclysm just haven’t worked for me.

I think the main problem (for me) is the traditional one for comics: they have to have something out every month, and readers stay with titles, so sometimes a new writer just isn’t going to give you what you’re used to.

Maybe if they’d gone with the original Ultimates way of publishing as mini- or maxi-series, only when they had a particular story to tell, it’d feel more special (although the third Ultimates series shows it’s still a problem when the writer’s changed). I like the approach DC have taken with the Earth One series (though I haven’t tried any of them yet) of producing a graphic novel every year or so.

Maybe if Marvel tried switching the Ultimate Universe to irregular mini-series when there’s a story worth telling, rather than keeping the titles going just to keep something there, they’d keep more readers. With most things collected these days, they don’t need to focus on periodicals, and the Ultimate Universe feels like it could be better served as a test bed for new publication models.

It was originally successful because of the quality, but attrition is inevitable. Maintaining success requires innovation as well as quality. In all writing.