Sunday, January 31, 2021

Indie Publishing

 Being an independent publisher, an "indie," has become more and more common in the last decade.  More books, especially ebooks (as opposed to physical books), are now being published by indie authors than by traditional publishing houses.

As they say, the good news is now everyone can be an author.  The bad new is now everyone can be an author.

Traditional publishing houses long functioned as "gatekeepers," publishing only books that they thought were good and that they thought would sell (not necessarily congruent categories).  Everyone heard stories of authors, from JK Rowling to the Bridges of Madison County guy, who were turned down by multiple publishers before hitting it big.  This is because guessing what was going to sell, as well as interjecting one's own taste into decisions about what's good, has always been an inexact science.

So now there are no gatekeepers for indie authors!  Good books can find their readers without anyone else deciding what they'd like!  Or that's the idea.  It doesn't quite work out that way.

It doesn't because of all the things the traditional publishers have always provided that a lot of indie authors can't manage on their own.  They gave books a good editing, to eliminate typos and misspellings (or at least most of them), and to make sure that the heroine didn't have blue eyes in Chapter 1 but brown eyes in Chapter 6, or that the hero didn't overhear all the details of the nefarious plot in Chapter 4, only to be shocked when he "first" hears about it in Chapter 14.

Traditional publishers always gave books attractive, genre-appropriate covers.  One has heard the saying, "Don't judge a book by its cover," but when there are many books to choose from, the one with the intriguing cover gets picked up first.  A cover with a slightly blurry photo of a backyard bird feeder is not going to sell many romance novels, even if in the story Judy and Jason first meet while buying bird seed.  A drawing of a sailboat is not going to inspire lovers of horror novels to pick up the book, even if the Undead Being manifests itself in a boathouse.  And don't get me started on the picture of Mommy and Daddy drawn by a six-year-old.

Here is the cover of my first published fantasy novel, "A Bad Spell in Yurt." It looks like a fantasy cover, and it looks like fun, and it helped make the book a national fantasy best-seller.  I had nothing to do with creating the cover--it was my publisher.  The artist is Tom Kidd.

The other thing traditional publishers have always provided is marketing.  No matter how good a book is, no one will buy it if no one knows it exists.  Publishers were good at getting books into stores, getting them reviewed in major newspapers and magazines, even getting the authors on radio or TV shows.  A lot of indie authors are shocked to discover that writing a good book is only Step One.  That's why it's called indie publishing--they have to be publishers as well as authors.

(In my own case, the eight books that I published traditionally gave me a fan base (we love you, fans!) that has continued into my indie publishing days, so I have a market for my new books, and people ready to recommend my old titles when I republish them.  Most indie authors aren't so lucky.)

The other thing challenging indie authors is how really bad some of the books being published are (as I hinted above), meaning some readers turn their noses up at self-published books.  So far no one has figured out how to install gatekeepers to keep out the sludge without, you know, instituting gatekeepers.

In spite of everything, some indie authors do very well.  One advantage they have is that there really is a market for books almost (but not quite) like best-sellers.  So traditional publishers wouldn't touch stories of teenage romance with a handsome young vampire after Twilight, but a lot of readers wanted such stories, and indie authors provided them.  Traditional publishers were dubious about more stories of a rag-tag group of men, elves, and dwarves off to conquer the Dark Lord, in spite of the success of Lord of the Rings, but indie authors have filled that need.  Harry Potter pretty much exhausted traditional publishers' interest in stories of wizardry schools (though my Bad Spell had a wizards' school long before Harry Potter appeared), but now anyone who wants such a story can find it.

The most popular indie genres are contemporary romance and soft-core erotica.  In both cases, readers are voracious, and a skilled and prolific indie author can keep cranking out books that will sell.  To get their books noticed, of course, they work more than a full-time job (there's a reason a traditional publishing house has dozens or more employees).  Realistically most indie authors will only sell one or two copies ever, including the sale to Mom.  There are plenty of sites on the web that will, "for a small fee," tell you how to make Big Bucks in Passive Income by being an indie publisher.  Do not believe them.  (Though they seem to be making plenty of Big Bucks themselves.)

Some skilled and fortunate (and very hard-working) indie authors gross seven-figure incomes (though they have to pay for covers and editors and advertising out of that).  They are however a tiny fraction of all indie authors.  That hasn't slowed a lot of would-be Bigtime Authors down.  They figure that less than 1% of the US population has died of Covid-19, so they aren't going to worry, yet on the other hand far less than 1% of all indie authors become rich, so they figure, That's me!  Sorry, it doesn't work that way.

Writing a book, finishing it, making it the best you can, successfully formatting and publishing it has got to be its own reward.  Selling copies to strangers who like it is gravy.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

Monday, January 25, 2021


 Insurrection, rising up against one's government, is serious.  And yet it has a strangely well established spot in American popular culture.  The American Revolution (actually not a social revolution like the French Revolution but a war of independence) is always framed as freedom-loving folks rising up against an oppressive government.  Star Wars is a series of stories about overthrowing the Evil Empire (you'd think they'd figure out that building a vulnerable spot into every Death Star was a bad idea).  The Hunger Games is about a bold, rag-tag group of freedom-lovers destroying the evil, oppressive Capital.

Even gun-rights advocates say that we need guns to defend ourselves against an oppressive government, although the Second Amendment discusses bearing arms as an act under government direction ("...a well regulated militia..."), and, let's face it, even the best-armed private citizen isn't going to have a lot of luck against a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

Nonetheless, the US has been a remarkably stable democracy for close to 250 years.  Certainly there have been isolated revolts against the government (like the Branch Davidians), but the only really concerted insurrection was the Civil War of the 1860s, which was actually more an effort to take the South off to be its own country than an effort to change the central government itself.

 There were insurrections in the Middle Ages and early modern period, usually framed as overthrowing the king.  This was a little tricky because although medieval kings were not "divine right" kings (the way some later kings tried to define themselves), there was a sense that in overthrowing a king one was overthrowing a form of government that, at least in structure, mirrored the Kingdom of God.  That meant that once the king was gone, it was appropriate to put in a new king (here the American Revolution differed, though there was serious thought of declaring George Washington a king).

As I've discussed earlier (see details here), the Merovingians, the family that ruled France in the early Middle Ages, were overthrown in 751 and replaced by the line of Carolingian kings.  The excuse was that the Merovingians had become hopelessly incompetent.

 The Carolingians too had revolts against them.  When Louis II of France died in 879 after a short reign, Boso of Burgundy declared himself French king, rather than the child Louis III.  It didn't work, and he ended up king only of Burgundy and Provence, with his own brother fighting against him, but it is interesting to note that this non-Carolingian king had given himself a royal aura by having his sister marry one Carolingian king and himself marrying that king's niece.  King Charles the Simple was deposed as incompetent in 923 and replaced by Robert I, a hero of the Viking wars.  The Carolingians came to a final end in 987, when Robert's grandson Hugh Capet became king of France, deposing the last, incompetent Carolingian and beginning the Capetian line.  You've probably noticed a pattern here.

In the late Middle Ages, however, the usual explanation for replacing a king was not that he was incompetent but that he was a tyrant.  Late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England witnessed struggles between a number of men of the royal line, all cousins, during the last years of the Hundred Years War (as discussed in an earlier post), and, more viciously, during the War of the Roses, with the argument for insurrection always being that the current king was a tyrant (plus evil).  This continued into the early modern period, with the brief reign in England of Mary Tudor ("Bloody Mary") before Elizabeth I became queen, the deposition and beheading of Charles I in 1649, and, after Charles I's son was (eventually) brought back to the throne, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that deposed (but didn't need to behead) Charles I's grandson James II.

And then there's the French Revolution, which was both a social revolution (ending official nobility) and eventually an overthrowing of the monarchy—originally the revolutionaries were going to allow the French king to stay on as a constitutional monarch (like England after 1688).  But that's a different story.

Maybe the real moral of the story is that those practicing insurrection over the centuries have been strangely unwilling to change the form of government, just the individual at the head, and that tyranny and incompetence are the favorite rationales.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on kings, government, and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see the ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon.  Also available in paperback!

Monday, January 18, 2021

Medieval Costumes

 Creative anachronists and those who enjoy cosplay put great effort into creating more-or-less authentic costumes.  They usually do not weave their own cloth (much less raise the sheep, shear the sheep, and spin the wool), and dying their own cloth is not common, but the more authentically-minded sew by hand rather than by by machine.

Photograph of five people standing together in costume

(Of course a lot of them buy patterns, in their size, and use the pieces of tissue to cut out pieces of cloth in the right shape, but there are limits to how heavy-duty someone wants to be.)


 Medieval Cosplay Armor Patterns | Kinpatsu Cosplay

If one is going to become all authentic about medieval costumes, one of the first decisions is to choose the era one is trying to reproduce.  For both men and women, throughout the Middle Ages, the basic unit of clothing was a tunic, essentially a long-sleeved T-shirt, shorter for the men, longer for the women, as seen in the medieval drawing below.  A long rectangular cloak, generally with a hood, went over this in cooler weather.  But this simple design was greatly varied depending on time and place.

Classical antiquity had had very simple clothing, a lot of it basically pieces of cloth just wrapped, tied, and pinned around the body.  Early medieval clothing seems to have been equally simple, although Germanic men adopted trousers, which the Romans initially found both effeminate and hilarious.

As the Middle Ages went on, clothing became more elaborate.  Elegant women wore dresses cut on the bias, which gave their clothing stretch, allowing their clothes to fit more closely to their bodies.  These elegant dresses did not have zippers or other fasteners (zippers are a nineteenth-century invention), so the woman had to wiggle her way in.  Sleeves were basted on separately, every morning.

Even with fairly simple tunics above and socks or stockings below (no tights), an outfit could be accessorized with brooches, bracelets, necklaces, sashes, and fancy belt buckles.  These were worn by both sexes.  The image below is a modern reproduction of a Frankish belt buckle.


A big advance in the thirteenth century was the adoption of buttons.  Originally they were merely decorative, but quickly women realized they could be used with loops as closings for one's clothes, allowing even more tight-fitting outfits.  Lots of buttons (which were expensive, usually mother-of-pearl or ceramic) was a sign of luxury.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages women started wearing elaborate head dresses, again as signs of wealth and luxury.  Keeping one's clothing fresh and unstained, especially if it was white, was also a sign of luxury in an era with neither dry cleaning nor washing machines.

In the post-medieval period, clothing became even more elaborate for those who could afford it.  Those huge white ruffled collars one sees in early modern Dutch paintings were certainly nothing that ordinary working people could afford or manage.

At the court of Louis XIV in France, clothing was by far the biggest expense for the aristocrats at court trying to impress each other.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on clothing and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon.  Also available in paperback1

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Medieval Armies

 We think of armies as professional bodies, thoroughly trained, wearing uniforms, following discipline, able (in the US) to get their tuition paid to go to college.  Since the era of the Vietnam War, the US has gone from a draft to a volunteer army.

Medieval armies were very different, starting with the lack of uniforms, training, and discipline.  The Roman army had been more like what we think of as an army, young men recruited into a paid professional military force for 20 year hitches, marching together in disciplined phalanxes.  Medieval generals had read about Roman armies (especially the treatise by Vegetius, "the Art of War"), but good luck having anything like that after the economic and social collapse of the Empire in the sixth century.

The Germanic armies that were commanded by early medieval kings and counts were foot-soldier armies, supposedly made up of all able-bodied free men.  Some had originally been hired by the Romans as "barbarian legions," but by the time one gets to the seventh and eighth centuries there was no sense of anyone getting paid.  They were expected to turn out and fight to defend their people.  Their chief weapon was a long sword, and they carried round shields—meant to protect the individual in a fight, rather than the tall, rectangular shields of the Romans, with which one could form a shield wall.  They had helmets but not much in the way of armor.

In the ninth and tenth centuries, once stirrups began to be in use (apparently they began in Persia), and there was enough iron to shoe horses, horses began to appear more and more in armies.  Knights started appearing attached to all armies in the eleventh century, and by the twelfth century knights made up the bulk of most armies, although they always had a significant foot-soldier component.  Great lords, especially in England, were expected to show up for battles accompanied by a certain number of knights.  If you think it would have been hard keeping a foot-soldier army disciplined when they were just young men told they needed to come defend the county, think about a lot of proud knights who were intensely proud of their ability and touchy about their honor.

These armies were still formidable.  Knights and the accompanying foot soldiers went on Crusade, conquering the Holy Land in the First Crusade and establishing the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  They lost it again within three generations, but that was probably inevitable for an occupying army surrounded by an awful lot of people who didn't want them there.

Mercenaries appeared in local wars in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, soldiers who would (at least theoretically) do what they were ordered to do, because otherwise they wouldn't be paid.  They could also (theoretically) be counted on for a long war, whereas knights usually went home from regional wars after a while.  The problem with mercenaries of course is if you stop paying, they will stop fighting for you, even switch sides.

Twelfth- and thirteenth-century knights had chain mail, helmets, lances, swords, and either round or tall, kite-shaped shields (as seen below).  Plate mail, such as you see in Hollywood movies, did not appear until the late Middle Ages.

A lot changed for armies in the Late Middle Ages.  Once gun powder became a weapon of war in the fourteenth century, during the Hundred Years War between France and England, cavalry charges became much less effective, as they could be brought down by cannon fire.  More and more armies were made up of foot soldiers armed with pikes.  Archers, both longbow men and those armed with crossbows, continued to play a major role, because there was nothing like a personal firearm.

The mass of foot soldiers of a late medieval army were treated with supreme disdain by their commanders, who called them cannon fodder, as they might be ordered to march against a bank of cannons and get killed, so the better trained soldiers could rush in before the cannons were reloaded.  These soldiers were "recruited" by officers going around to villages and ordering a certain number of young men to join the army.  They would end up with the poor who didn't have the money to buy their way out, the obnoxious and violent who were pushed to go by their neighbors, and the foolish, who actually believed the promises of military pay.

Yet these armies were tough.  For the Hundred Years War, from which we have fairly good records, soldiers would march 20 miles in a day and then fight a battle.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on medieval knights and so much more, see my ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Medieval Communication

 These days most of our communication is done by means other than talking to someone who is right next to you.  We telephone, we skype or zoom call, we email or text, we make posts on Twitter or Facebook, sometimes we even write letters.

Other than the last of these, all were impossible during the Middle Ages.  The ability to allow one's friends and relatives and co-workers, or thousands (or millions) of social media followers, to know what one is thinking has of course changed communication drastically in the last century and a half, especially the last twenty years or so.  But medieval people of course did communicate, just not the same way we do.

For them, almost all communication was of necessity face to face.  Whereas today most of feel overwhelmed by the amount of information coming in, via various communication sources (and I haven't even yet mentioned radio, TV, streaming news services, or newspapers and magazines), medieval people would have been starved for news.  Any new person coming to town, or any person returning from a trip, would have been expected to provide all sorts of information and updates, from personal news to details of battles, births of royal heirs, or miracles at a shrine.

Medieval cities were run by mayors and town councils, as I have discussed earlier, and their meetings of course would have to be done in-person.  New regulations would have to be promulgated by someone going around and telling people (hence the image of the "town crier," which persisted into early New England).

Kings would have to rely on personal representatives to spread their orders.  Charlemagne, for example, had a whole system of so-called missi (meaning "those who are sent"), people sent out from court to convey royal commands and to check up on his local counts.  Although medieval people were all comfortable with the idea of kings, they might not always know who their king was.

Then there's writing. When you think about it, it's almost magical, not only can you communicate with people who are far away, but you can receive messages from people who have been dead for centuries, or leave messages for people of the future.  Many of the messages sent out by kings would have been in writing, to avoid confusion.  Writing was valued, because preparing parchment (or in the late Middle Ages paper), making ink, and writing carefully by hand  was difficult.  The problem was that most of the population couldn't read.

If they received a written communication, they would have to have it read out to them.  For that matter, letters were normally read out loud, even if the recipient could read.  Until the thirteenth century, letters were in Latin, and even someone who could read Latin might prefer to have a number of people read and comment on a letter, to make sure the meaning was clear.

Because writing letters was rare, there was nothing like a postal system.  Letters had to be hand carried.  We know that husbands wrote their wives from Crusade, and that monks wrote to their friends at other monasteries, because these letters were preserved and often copied into books.  They only could reach the recipient if someone was going that way and could carry the letter.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on medieval communication, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback from on-line retailers.