Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Big-five publishers and lower ebook sales

by Rob - November 9th, 2015

Publishers Weekly reported today:

Lower e-book sales were a big factor in the weak financial performance at HarperCollins and limiting gains at Simon & Schuster in the quarter ended Sept. 30, 2015.
My own take on this is that the big-five publishers have convinced themselves so thoroughly that their product is worth a premium ebook price that they can’t imagine pricing their ebooks at what has clearly turned out to be the much-lower going rate for independently published books.

It seems to me that much of the ebook-reading public has decided, you know what, for what I want out of a reading experience, your product ISN’T worth three or four times as much as other offerings.

Whenever big publishers say ebook sales are declining, they seem to mean ebook sales of their own titles are declining. It wouldn’t hurt publishers to hire fewer English majors and a few more who had studied economics, specifically supply and demand.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Remembering Michael Coney

by Rob - November 4th, 2015

Ten years ago today, we lost a giant of Canadian SF. Michael G. Coney, whose 1976 novel Brontomek! won the British Science Fiction Association Award, died November 4, 2005, at the age of 73 This year he is being inducted posthumously into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

On the Best-of-the-Decade Aurora Award

by Rob - November 3rd, 2015

Post TWO OF TWO on this topic, this one about the BEST-OF-DECADE Aurora Award: Members of the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association may vote now (online) or in-person at SFContario later this month on two new Aurora Awards. I just voted online, and, since the ballot solicited comments to go with votes, here’s what I had to say about the SECOND new Aurora Award (for a discussion of the first new proposed Aurora, a dramatic-presentation award, see here):

Motion to establish a new Aurora Award: The Best in a Decade Aurora Award

This Aurora Award will be given out once per decade to honour novels and multi-volume works (Adult or YA) that have stood the test of time. The award would span a full decade. We also propose that the award for 2001 through 2010 will be given out in 2017. The date that this award will be given out in future years will be chosen by the CSFFA board but will happen in the latter part of each decade..

[X] I do not approve the creation of new Aurora Award: The Best in a Decade Aurora Award.


Insufficient information to support this proposal. What of a trilogy that starts in one decade and ends in another (such as Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, each volume of which separately won a best-novel Aurora, and were published in 2009, 2010, and 2011)?

Do we allow books that didn’t make the Aurora ballot in their given year to compete? If so, surely this devalues the Aurora-winning distinction for the novel that DID win the best-novel Aurora in the same year as the best-of-the-decade novel was published, if it’s a standalone.

What if the award goes to a YA novel that was published in a year in which we gave both an adult and a YA Aurora? Doesn’t that devalue the adult-Aurora winner from that year (and conversely devalues the YA winner, should an adult novel win)? Yes, we didn’t give YA awards in the previous decade, but the lack of thought in this proposal (not covering factors that will be relevant the very next time the award is presented) is distressing.

Finally, is seven years’ worth of looking back sufficient? Yeah, we might say that a novel from 2001 that is still well-regarded in 2017 — sixteen years later — has stood the test of time, but has one from 2010 really done that by 2017? Or are we pushing to give this in 2017 because it’s something Hal-Con, the presumptive host of the Auroras that year, wants, rather than because the time is right? Surely the best-of-a-decade needs to have stood the test of AT LEAST a decade’s time, no?

(Pictured: My Aurora Award trophy from 2000, for the novel FlashForward, published in 1999; this work is too old to be considered for the best-of-the-decade Aurora.)

Robert J. Sawyer online:

On the Dramatic-Presentation Aurora Award

by Rob - November 3rd, 2015

Post ONE OF TWO on this topic, this one about the DRAMATIC PRESENTATION Aurora Award: Members of the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association may vote now (online) or in-person at SFContario later this month on two new Aurora Awards. I just voted online, and, since the ballot solicited comments to go with votes, here’s what I had to say about the FIRST new Aurora Award (for a discussion of the second new proposed Aurora, a best-of-the-decade award, see here):

Motion to establish a new Aurora Award: Best Dramatic Presentation Aurora Award

This new Aurora award would recognize excellence in visual presentations, including but not limited to TV series, TV specials, motion pictures and stage presentations. The Award shall be made on the quality of the overall presentation and so will take into account the acting, direction, cinematography and production as well as the writing. (to be first presented in 2016 for 2015 works.).

[X] I do not approve the creation of new Aurora Award: Best Dramatic Presentation Aurora Award.


Although the Hugos have two dramatic categories, they are dominated by blockbuster movies and network TV shows. There are virtually no actually Canadian blockbuster SF&F movies, and with only a couple of exceptions the so-called Canadian SF&F TV shows are simply filmed in Canada but creatively controlled from the US, and although there are fine Canadian stage plays in our genres they are never seen nationally.

Since there’s zero chance of getting screeners for eligible works to be included in the Aurora voters’ packet, and since the truly Canadian works will be minimally seen by potential nominators and voters, this is an ill-advised category.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Eric Wright, R.I.P.

by Rob - October 26th, 2015

A giant of Canadian literature has left us. My friend Eric Wright, whom I’d known since 1993, and whose Charlie Salter mystery novels, which I began reading in 1984 and which were flagrantly Canadian in setting and tone, were a huge influence on me as a writer, passed away October 9, 2015, at the age of 86.

Eric had been kind enough to blurb my latest novel, Red Planet Blues:

Imagine the plot of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre played out on the planet Mars. Sawyer has, and the result is wonderful in both senses — a terrific noir crime novel that is full of the wonders of Sawyer’s sci-fi world. In Red Planet Blues S Sawyer has imagined, and written, his best book yet.

Eric was always supportive of me, and I had great affection for him. Peter Robinson, Canada’s leading mystery writer, has penned this appreciation of our mutual friend.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

On the fifth anniversary of Ralph Vicinanza’s death

by Rob - September 26th, 2015

Five years ago today, on September 26, 2010, my literary agent, the legendary Ralph Vicinanza, passed away, at the age of 60. Here’s the tribute I wrote to him back then:

Ralph Vicinanza was my agent for the past fifteen years. I remember when I was looking for a new agent calling many of his clients — the biggest names in the business — and asking if they’d recommend him. Every single one sung his praises, and I was thrilled when Ralph took me on as a client — it was very rare for him to take on a new client personally.

I never for one second doubted I’d found the right person — but, of all our interactions, I think nothing made that clearer than a conversation we had one day about the smallest contract he ever negotiated for me.

The worst-selling category of science-fiction books is single-author collections. Because of that, I’d decided I wanted my first collection to be done only in hardcover and only in Canada (so that the poor sales it was doubtless going to get would never show up in Barnes & Noble’s or Borders’ computers). The little Canadian publisher I’d arranged to sell it to (long since defunct) had a boilerplate contract that Ralph didn’t like at all, and he spent days negotiating the various clauses. The advance was piddling (I’ve sold short stories for more than I got for the entire book), meaning Ralph’s commission was minuscule. I kept apologizing to Ralph for all the work he was having to do for such a tiny commission, and finally he said to me, “Don’t ever apologize for making me work, Rob. This is what I do, and I enjoy it. Besides, I never think about the commission on a specific contract; I only think about my client’s overall career.”

He did indeed enjoy negotiating, almost always getting me what I wanted, and doing so without ever ruffling publishers’ feathers. I remember several years ago an author who was with the same publisher I was saying he had a suspicion his agent wasn’t doing as good a job for him as Ralph was for me. He asked me to black out the dollar figures on one of my contracts and let him compare the contractual terms his agent had gotten for him with the ones Ralph had gotten for me. We laid the two contracts side-by-side, and it was clear by the strikeouts and additions that Ralph had worked much, much harder for me than my friend’s agent had for him; in almost every clause of the contract, I had materially better terms, thanks to Ralph.

A decade ago, I worked on the TV series Charlie Jade, and executive producer Robert Wertheimer met with Ralph in New York to hammer out details of my involvement — and for months afterwards, every time I saw Bob, he went on about what a great afternoon of conversation he’d had with Ralph.

Recently, before Ralph had passed on, I had the pleasure of meeting Isaac Asimov’s daughter Robyn; for many years, Ralph had represented the Asimov estate. Robyn and I hit it off immediately — spending the first half-hour we were together trading stories about what a great guy Ralph was. Indeed, in all the years I knew Ralph, I never once — never once — heard anyone say a negative word about him.

Ralph M. Vicinanza was a gentleman of warmth, wit, and compassion, a raconteur, a truly nice guy, and an absolutely terrific agent. I know I’m going to miss him for the rest of my life.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Lost in Space conclusion

by Rob - September 25th, 2015

One of the special features on the 50th-anniversary LOST IN SPACE Blu-ray set is a 2015 table read of the proposed series finale Bill Mumy himself co-wrote in 1980, with Bill Mumy, Mark Goddard, Marta Kirsten, and Angela Cartwright reading their own classic parts, Guy Williams Jr. standing in for his father, and Angela’s sister (and ALIEN star) Veronica Cartwright playing Dr. Maureen Robinson, plus Kevin Burns absolutely nailing an impression of Jonathan Harris.

The script has a tough task: be true to the original beginnings of LOST IN SPACE as a serious drama, and yet be something that could have followed on after the end of the campy third season — and it accomplishes that as well as anything could. With intro and outro, it runs an hour and 33 minutes, and is well worth watching.

Bill Mumy remembers, with what appears to be some bitterness, that Irwin Allen refused to read the script, but, actually, the justification Allen gives is valid: it would open him to a lawsuit from Mumy or his cowriters if Allen ever decided to do anything on his own with the property (which, of course, was his) that even remotely resembled what this script did; as Allen said, there were only, maybe, a half-dozen ways LOST IN SPACE could have ended, and he couldn’t allow any of them to be fenced off because someone else had taken a crack at some of them before he himself had. Still, it’s sad that that’s the last conversation the two of them ever had.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Putting SF characters on the couch

by Rob - September 24th, 2015

One of my favourite schticks as a writer is the psychological counselling of my science-fictional characters. I built the entire novel FOREIGNER around it (with the alien counterpart of Galileo being psychoanalyzed by the alien counterpart of Freud), and it is also the framing device in my Hugo Award-nominated HUMANS (where a Neanderthal shrink, Jurard Selgan [named for my friend Marcel Gerard Gagné] has sessions with a troubled Neanderthal quantum physicist).

I’d long thought I’d lifted that from my favourite SF novel, Frederik Pohl’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning GATEWAY (in which a guilt-ridden man is psychoanalyzed by a computer). I first read GATEWAY in the summer of 1978, when it was freshly out in paperback.

Today, while treadmilling, and in honour of me reading Richard Anderson’s as-told-to-by autobiography, I popped in what is either the best or second-best episode of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, namely “The Seven Million Dollar Man” (the only one that equals it in quality is “The Last Kamikaze,” written by Judy Burns). It’s the best work Richard Anderson ever did in the series, and just about the best Lee Majors ever did, Alan Oppenheimer knocks it out of the park as Rudy Wells, and Monte Markham, as the second cyborg, turns in the performance of his career. It’s a perfect combination of cast, script (by Peter Allan Fields), and direction (Dick Moder).

But, as I noted today, it’s also exactly my schtick, at least at the beginning: the psychological analysis of a science-fiction character. The beginning has Steve undergoing his 12th quarterly psych evaluation since becoming a cyborg, and Rudy’s nurse, at the end of the session, stealing the tape recording of the session to give to Markham’s character, the second — emotionally deranged — cyborg.

I saw “Seven Million” when it first aired, on November 1, 1974, almost four years before I read GATEWAY, and that scene probably informed my later work if not as much as Pohl at least quite significantly.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

A hot dense state

by Rob - September 22nd, 2015

I tuned into the season 9 premiere of The Big Bang Theory because my friend Sherry Peters​ tipped me off that my buddy Jim Meskimen was guest-starring (he played the officiant), but, man, was I disappointed. I haven’t watched TBBT for a few years, and except for one science joke at the end (which was also a dick joke, to satisfy what they apparently have come to believe is their core audience of Two and a Half Men die-hards), there was none of the geeky humor, and precious little of the genuine affection between socially awkward characters, that made the early seasons pleasant.

I was so glad to see Jim Meskimen getting primetime network work — he’s truly one of the funniest guys alive — but he was utterly wasted in a paint-by-numbers part. Ah, well. At least I got to hear Barenaked Ladies sing the theme song again.

Fairest of Them All

by Rob - September 21st, 2015

If you’re not yet watching Star Trek Continues, you should be. They’ve produced four brilliant classic-era Star Trek episodes so far, with the fifth debuting soon. I love them all, but, even though I have a cameo in the fourth episode, “The White Iris,” my favorite is the third one, “Fairest of Them All,” directed (as is the fourth) by my great friend James Kerwin (who also directed the brilliant SF noir film Yesterday was a Lie).

“Fairest of Them All” is my favorite not just because it’s technically brilliant and beautifully acted but also because I’m a morally committed lifelong pacifist — a worldview I got from having two thoughtful academics as parents, from having a Unitarian as a mother, and from watching classic Star Trek.

So many Star Trek fan productions (going right back to the first ASCII-character computer games from the 1970s) seem to utterly forget that Star Trek was about pacifism: about Halkans who were willing to die rather than become accessories to killing; about Spock who would argue for pacifism; about Organians who showed both Kirk and Kor the evils of war; about Kirk sparing the Gorn who doubtless would have killed him; about Surak who turned a whole violent race to peace; about a prophetic woman who knew that one day we’ll take all the money we spend now on war and death and spend it on life instead; about humanitarians and statesmen who had a dream that spread among the stars and made all men brothers.

“Fairest of Them All” nobly explores those high ideals, while still telling a rollicking, enormously entertaining story.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Hyping the dubious Homo naledi

by Rob - September 20th, 2015

The lede is buried in this excellent article by Ray Hartley from South Africa’s Rand Daily Mail. The meat begins with the tenth paragraph, which starts, “There was only one moment during the press event when the giant bubble of hype was threatened by a sharp question.”

Read from that point down, at least, then come back here; I’ll wait.

I often give keynote addresses at science conferences, and in September 2011, I gave the keynote at the Annual Meeting of the Science Media Centre of Canada, in Ottawa. My theme was that science journalists owe it to the readers, and to the science itself, to not be breathless shills for every person wanting press coverage.

It’s still an issue. All the current headlines about Homo naledi “rewriting human evolution” and “upending everything we thought we knew” are not only premature but feed right into the zealots who want to say that science is on shaky ground.

The case in point I used in 2011 was the then-current claim that the speed of light had been exceeded in a laboratory experiment. As I said to the audience of journalists, it’s got to be a measurement error, every one of you knows that it’s almost certainly that, and yet you peddle it as though it were celebrity gossip, requiring no more basis in reality than, “Someone said Brad and Angelina had a fight last night.”

In the case of Homo naledi, we have a paper that was rejected by peer-review, multiple scientists saying the new taxon is invalid, and no dating info available yet, and science “journalists” reporting the hype instead of the facts. Ugh.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

2nd anniversary of best-ever Canadian academic conference on science fiction

by Rob - September 13th, 2015

Two years ago today, the biggest and best academic conference ever held about science fiction in Canada began at McMaster University. “Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre” — three days with multiple tracks — was hosted there in honour of the receipt by McMaster of my professional archives (subsequently certified as being of “outstanding significance and national importance” by the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board). The conference was fabulous, the papers — many on my work — uniformly excellent, and the event was a career highlight for me.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Taschen’s 2001 making-of book

by Rob - September 3rd, 2015

My review of Piers Bizony’s The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (published by Taschen) is up now at SFRevu.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Ask Me Anything transcript

by Rob - September 3rd, 2015

A year ago today – 3 September 2014 — I did an Ask Me Anything session for Reddit. Here’s a transcript:


For Rob Sawyer:

Your books seem very thematically strong to me. What do you try to do with your books, in terms of having a theme and a message?

And do you start out with your theme and build a book around it, or does your theme grow out organically from the story?


Thanks for the thoughtful question! My writing mentor early on, Terence M. Green, used to speak of creating “thoughtful entertainment” — something that left you pondering for days or weeks after you finished it. I’ve always strived to do work that does the same thing (and, of course, was hugely influenced by the original STAR TREK and the original PLANET OF THE APES, which likewise did that).

I definitely start with a theme — something I want to say — and then work out the plot and characters that will let me say it. Science fiction is often termed “the literature of ideas,” and I think the core of really good SF is a fresh thematic statement, a new idea about something fundamental. For my current novel, THE PHILOSOPHER’S ZOMBIE [since retitled QUANTUM NIGHT], I have a non-printing comment at the very top of the manuscript file spelling out precisely what the theme is, so that I can remind myself to test each scene to see if it’s in service of that theme.


For Rob Sawyer and any other writers on the list with Canadian roots:

Do you think that being Canadian has had either a positive or negative effect on you as a professional writer, both on the business side and on the artistic side? Thanks!


Hugely, hugely positive effect, Drakkenfyre. I get all the traditional benefits of being a genre-fiction writer in the US plus the sorts of things that rarely happen to my American SF-writing colleagues in the states. I get invited to mainstream literary festivals; my books get taught at just about every Canadian university; I’ve been interviewed over 300 times on Canadian radio and over 300 times on Canadian TV. Canada treats its writers like movie stars (because so few movie stars live here!); I can’t think of a single downside to being Canadian in terms of my writing careers, and oodles of upsides — the biggest of which, of course, was being able to go full-time as a self-employed writer when I was just 23, because I had government-supplied health insurance. ;)


Thank you! Fascinating… especially about health insurance.


For Robert, the final part of the final part of the question trilogy

Favorite Candy Bar?

Since you are a frequent DragonCon attendee, any favorite Atlanta restaurants yet?

Best hangout in Toronto?

Have you ever gotten to tour CERN?

Again, Robert…thanks. I look forward to that Nov 2015 release [QUANTUM NIGHT since moved to March 2016]. Now, how does one arrange a signed first edition in advance/on release?

Continue reading »

Quantum Night cover reveal

by Rob - September 1st, 2015

Six months from today, on Tuesday, March 1, 2016, my twenty-third novel, Quantum Night, will be released simultaneously in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook. Click the image above for a high-resolution / print-quality version.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Quantum Night cover reveal on September 1

by Rob - August 26th, 2015

On Tuesday morning (Eastern time), September 1, I will unveil the gorgeous cover for my 23rd novel, Quantum Night. That’s six months to the day in advance of publication: the book will be released in hardcover, ebook, and as an audiobook on Tuesday, March 1, 2016.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

My 23rd novel will be called Quantum Night

by Rob - July 31st, 2015

We still don’t have a cover, but we at last have a final title: my 23rd novel, coming March 1st, 2016, is now officially called:


I’ve never had a title go through so many changes, but with having two different American editors during the creation of this book, a Canadian editor, and separate marketing and sales departments on both sides of the border, there was a lot of back and forth — which was actually nice: it meant everybody was invested in the book.

Here, in chronological order, are the titles this novel has had:

* Thoughtless (but my US editor Ginjer Buchanan thought it was too soft a title, although I liked that it included both “thought” and “ought” (as in ethical behavior), two of the novel’s themes, and also evoked the notion, key to the plot, of beings who were literally thoughtless — with no inner lives)

* The Philosopher’s Zombie (suggested by my friend Nick DiChario and still my favorite title for the book; originally approved by my US editor Ginjer Buchanan, but after she retired, both my new US editor, Jessica Wade, and my Canadian one, Adrienne Kerr, expressed concerns about the z-word, so …)

* Thoughtless (again, as a working title, but my agent thought it was “a terrible title,” so …)

* Quantum Night (my coinage, from a poetic musing by the novel’s main character)

* Psychopath State (my American publisher wanted something that might bring in mainstream readers, so we tried this, then realized it sounded like a scary American university)

* Quantum Psychopath (as I wrote to my editors: “It’s a bit lurid, but it certainly covers both plot elements, and one of my definitions is that ‘science fiction is the literature of intriguing juxtapositions’ — and ‘quantum’ sparking off of ‘psychopath’ certainly is that”)

* Quantum Night (although both my US and Canadian editors, as well as myself, had signed off on Quantum Psychopath, my agent Chris Lotts felt that wasn’t classy enough for this book — a sentiment I secretly shared — and so we reverted to Quantum Night).

And it’s locked — and seven months from tomorrow, it’ll be on bookstore shelves, available in all ebook formats, and also available as an audiobook.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

15 years of national bestsellerdom

by Rob - July 29th, 2015

Speaking, as we were yesterday, of bestsellers lists, it was fifteen years ago today, July 29, 2000, that I first hit a national top-ten mainstream bestsellers list in Canada. My Calculating God hit #8 on the Globe and Mail fiction bestsellers list, and the following week, it hit #7 on the fiction list in Maclean’s, Canada’s national newsmagazine.

The wonderful folks at H.B. Fenn and Company, the Canadian distributor for Tor Books at the time, surprised me with this beautiful (and large!) commemorative poster (click for larger version). As I noted in my journal for September 7, 2000:

Today was an unexpectedly fabulous day. I had a meeting scheduled with Heidi Winter, senior publicist at H.B. Fenn and Company, the Canadian distributor for Tor Books. The meeting was supposed to be a wrap-up discussion about my recent book tour for Calculating God.

Carolyn and I drove up to Bolton, Ontario, where Fenn is headquartered. Heidi took us upstairs to the board room for our meeting …

… except it turned out it wasn’t a meeting. To my absolute shock and delight, it was a surprise party for me! They were celebrating my making the bestsellers lists in The Globe and Mail: Canada’s National Newspaper and Maclean’s: Canada’s National Newsmagazine.

Forty Fenn staff members were on hand to congratulate me. They had a big cake and lots of beverages, and the art department had made up a wonderful “Congratulations, Rob!” poster, signed by all sorts of Fenn staff members.

Harold Fenn (the president) gave a terrific and very moving speech about our ten-year-long association (Fenn is also the Canadian distributor for Warner Books, so they had distributed my first novel, Golden Fleece, back in 1990). I was absolutely floored; I knew making the national mainstream bestsellers lists was a thrill for me, but I hadn’t realized it had been a thrill for the Fenn folk as well. But they seemed at least as delighted as I was.

After the party, the publicity department — Heidi Winter, Marla Krisko, and Melissa Cameron — took Carolyn and me out for a lovely lunch.

I was totally surprised, very touched, and completely thrilled. It was just wonderful.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

“Bestselling author” has become a meaningless term

by Rob - July 28th, 2015

Before the Amazon/self-publishing revolution debased/democratized (take your pick) the term, “bestsellerdom” was easy to ascertain: a book was a bestseller when it appeared on a recognized published-in-print bestsellers list (the most important of which was the one in The New York Times). Such lists do appear still in newspapers and magazines (in Canada, the important ones are the national ones appearing in The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s, Canada’s weekly newsmagazine).

Unfortunately, Amazon has provided so many sub-sub-sub categories that we’re just this side of people claiming bestseller status because they’ve hit number one on a list that goes:

Amazon > All Books > Kindle > Fiction > Fiction Written By Me

(In other words, just like in Kindergarten, everyone who shows up gets a gold star; countless authors have hit top-10 in some Amazon sub-sub-sub category for an our or two, which is all it takes for some of them to forevermore tout themselves as bestselling authors.)

But the bottom line is, in general, “bestselling author” or “bestselling novel” is not something you yourself claim or assert; it’s something you document with a citation to the authority that conferred that status. The beauty of newspaper and magazine bestsellers’ lists, compiled either weekly or monthly, is that they established that you hadn’t just had a statistical blip in sales (“For one hour my ebook was the #4 bestseller in an obscure sub-sub category on Amazon!”) but that you’d made it to that stature for at least seven days or a full month, in a broad (fiction / nonfiction / YA / hardcover / paperback) category in which there are a great many books.

I’ve hit #1 on the highest-level category for my field — science fiction — on three national Amazon lists — .com, .ca, and — and, for that matter, #1 on .com’s technothriller list — and #1 on the Audible science-fiction monthly bestsellers’ list, and I’ve been #1 on most of the regional lists in Canada (such as the one published in the Winnipeg Free Press) and even some American ones (for instance, the Palm Beach Daily News) and #1 on the bestsellers list published in Locus, the trade journal of the SF&F fields.

But just as my publishers and readers only care about awards you’ve actually won that people have actually heard of, they only care (if readers care at all) about such things when they recognize the name of the bestsellers’ list you’ve actually appeared on. First “author” fell by the wayside as a term meaning one had actually accomplished something, and generic “bestselling author” has likewise lost any cachet.

I am proud of the one illustrated above. I’ve been on the list in Maclean’s, which is Canada’s national newsmagazine, often starting in 2000, but this was the highest I’ve made it on their list: the #3 bestselling novel of any type, by authors of any nationality, across all of Canada, for the week.

The numbers to the right are the book’s ranking the previous week (I was at #6) and the total number of weeks, including this one, that the book has been on the list so far (so this was my third week).

Robert J. Sawyer online:


by Rob - July 23rd, 2015

I see lots of authors trying to fund the time to write their books via Kickstarter or Indiegogo, and I daily get requests from some of them to promote their campaigns on my Facebook wall. I haven’t figured out my stance on all this yet. Certainly, when I was writing my early books (I wrote my first three novels without contracts, and so without advances prior to their completion), I had to make sacrifices (working my ass off to earn enough money ahead of time so that I could afford to take time off from the nonfiction and corporate freelance writing I was doing then to pursue this).

I’m not saying people should have to suffer for their art, but I’m not yet convinced that this is the right alternative, either. And, of course, I come from an era (old fart that I am) in which authors were compensated on the very straightforward model that you made money when people bought your books, simple as that.

Yesterday, when yet another person asked me to promote their Kickstarter, I wrote:

Not to be a Grinch, but I get asked daily to support Kickstarters for authors, and I have very mixed feelings about the crowdfunding concept, which shifts the burden of risk from the artist to the audience (sight-unseen, with no one having reviewed the finished product, the audience is asked to fund the creation of something). I’m not passing judgment on your project — it indeed sounds worthwhile — it’s just the funding model in general that I have reservations about. Please forgive me.
So, I’m still struggling with this. I’ve supported some Kickstarters for projects that clearly are not commercially viable that I’d like to see done. But early books in a writer’s career? Those have rarely been commercially viable for anyone, and have always represented a substantial degree of risk and commitment on the part of the author.

Yes, I see parallels to the granting culture that swirls around much of Canadian literature. But far from being entrepreneurial, that culture (asking for government handouts) and this one (crowdfunding) strike me as quite the opposite. As I say, I shall continue to mull over the issue.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Join The Authors Guild

by Rob - July 20th, 2015

I recently rejoined The Authors Guild because of the great work they’re doing fighting for fair ebook royalties from traditional publishers (the Guild advocates 50% of net; the big five are all holding fast 25% of net) and a return to actual advances (instead of half the money coming years after the manuscript is accepted — PRH and others are paying “advances” in four installments now).

There’s strength in numbers, so The Authors Guild is having a membership sale. If you join via this link, you get $25 off your first year’s membership (bringing it down to $100), and I get $25 off my renewal. Read more about The Authors Guild here.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Documentary about Susan Oliver

by Rob - July 19th, 2015

Susan Oliver played Vina in Star Trek‘s first pilot “The Cage” (later incorporated into the two-parter “The Menagerie”). Last year at the Star Trek Las Vegas convention, I bought a documentary about her on DVD called The Green Girl, and finally got around to watching it. IT IS SPECTACULAR. Just wonderfully touching and moving, and filled with clips from 1950s-1980s TV, plus interviews with all sorts of behind-the-scenes personal and TV stars from that period. Seriously, I enjoyed every minute. You can get it on DVD, or streaming now.

See the website for the documentary here.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

The pitch that sold Red Planet Blues

by Rob - July 18th, 2015

Four years ago today, on July 18, 2011, I sent this pitch to my US and Canadian editors — which eventually led to the book Red Planet Blues:

Hi, Ginjer and Adrienne.

Now that you’ve accepted Triggers, it’s time for me to get to work on my next book (which you’ve already contracted for; it’s due May 8, 2012).

For that project, I’d like to expand two short works of mine into a novel: the novella “Identity Theft” (23,200 words) and the sequel short story “Biding Time” (5,600 words). Copies of both are attached.

Both are science-fiction/mystery crossover stories with a noir flavor featuring the only private detective on Mars. The characters — including gumshoe Alex Lomax, femme fatale Cassandra Wilkins, the timid Rory Pickover, corrupt police official Dougal McCrae, and the obese black-marketeer Ernie Gargalian — might have been played, in an earlier time, by Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, and Sydney Greenstreet.

These stories are also homages to the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. The Martian frontier town of New Klondike, and its desperate, grizzled prospectors, recall that era (and the similar greed-driven lawlessness of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre).

I spent three months in the summer of 2007 as writer-in-residence at Berton House in Dawson City, in Canada’s Yukon Territory, which was the heart of the Klondike Gold Rush. (Berton House is the family home of the late Pierre Berton, Canada’s leading writer of historical nonfiction, including Klondike, the definitive history of the gold rush.) Dawson City is filled with historical monuments and recreations from the Gold Rush, and my time there will help me evocatively capture that frontier spirit.

The two stories I’m attaching amount to 29,000 words. The novel — which I’d like to call The Great Martian Fossil Rush — would weigh in at 100,000 words, but these works give a flavor of what that book will be like.

The expansion will deal extensively with the backstory only hinted at in the two short works: the discovery of fossils on Mars, which, in an era of cheap everything, become highly sought-after collectibles, spurring the fossil rush. In addition to the two cases Alex Lomax deals with in the short works, the novel would have as its central plot Alex solving the mystery of the murders of Weingarten and O’Reilly, the two explorers who first discovered the evidence of ancient life on Mars.

The source stories have strong pedigrees: “Identity Theft” was a finalist for both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, and won the world’s largest cash prize for science-fiction writing, Spain’s 6,000-euro Premio UPC de Ciencia Ficción. “Biding Time” won Canada’s Aurora Award and was reprinted in Penguin Canada’s The Penguin Book of Crime Stories, edited by Peter Robinson.

I hope this idea appeals to the two of you as much as it does to me!

All best wishes.


[In the end, the novel was actually called Red Planet Blues. It ran to 105,000 words, and it didn’t incorporate any of “Biding Time.”]
On Facebook, Jon Helms, one of my readers expressed surprise at the above, writing:
Fascinating. I had no idea they contracted authors for unrelated books with delivery dates. I expected that with a series like the The Neanderthal Parallax, I didn’t have any idea it would happen with unrelated books.
My reply to Jon:
My career has been mostly two-book and three-book contracts for not-yet-written books, and it’s never it made any difference to my publishers (Ace in the 1990s and again now; Tor in between) whether the books were related or not. If they’re unrelated, the contract will specify what the first one will be, and for the other one or two will say words to the effect of “a property to be agreed upon later” or simply “untitled Sawyer novel.”

I’ve never had a publisher object to whatever I later proposed to fulfill the second-book or third-book slots on a contract, and, indeed, a couple of times I’ve changed projects midstream even after the approval (neither Calculating God nor Rollback were the novels I’d originally gotten the go-ahead to write, but, as both ended up being Hugo finalists, no one complained).

Sometimes the pitch for a second or third book has been as elaborate as above; other times, it’s just been me sitting down at a convention for a meal with my editor and verbally outlining what I’m thinking of doing. That was the case, in fact, with my upcoming 23rd novel. I described it — quite vaguely, as I hadn’t worked out a lot of details yet — to Ginjer Buchanan over lunch at the Worldcon in Chicago, she asked questions, called it a “chewy” premise, and said she’d trust that I could pull it off. And, boom, off to work.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Small Print cover boy

by Rob - July 18th, 2015

I’m the cover boy for the Spring-Summer 2015 issue of the free beautiful PDF magazine Small Print Magazine. The issue includes a meaty five-page interview with me conducted by Gene Wilburn. You can download the issue for free here.

(Cover photo by Christina Frost.)

Robert J. Sawyer online:

My 2015 WorldCon schedule

by Rob - July 17th, 2015

Here’s my programming schedule for Sasquan, the 2015 World Science Fiction Convention, coming up in August in Spokane:

  • “Writing for TV” (Moderator) (45 mintues)
    Thursday, August 20, at 3:00 p.m.
    Bays 111A (CC)
    with Michael Cassutt, David Gerrold, Melinda Snodgrass, Charlie Reeves

  • Autographing
    Friday, August 21, at 11:00 a.m.
    Exhibit Hall B (CC)

  • Reading from forthcoming novel (20 minutes)
    Friday, August 21, at 12:30 p.m.
    303B (CC)

  • “Writing About Characters Who Are Smarter Than You” (45 minutes)
    Friday, August 21, at 1:00 p.m.
    Bays 111B (CC)
    with Denise Connell, Kamila Miller, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Steven H Silver

  • Literary Beer with Robert J. Sawyer (45 mintues)
    (Limited to nine people; you must sign up for this)
    Friday, August 21, at 2:00 p.m.
    Exhibit Hall C – Literary Beer (CC)

  • “The Future of Publishing” (45 mintues)
    Saturday, August 22, at 11:00 a.m.
    Bays 111C (CC)
    with Toni Weisskopf, Taiyo Fujii, Beth Meacham, Zaza Koshkadze

Robert J. Sawyer online:

A little advice on breaking in

by Rob - July 12th, 2015

My old pal Steve Fahnestalk brought his question on Quora to my attention:

In a few months (finishing the final draft now), I’ll be looking to submit a fantasy novel to publishers. What is the best way to pursue this?”
The most-popular answer on Quora was:
Whether we like it or not, most of the big publishing houses just won’t accept submissions from first-time authors without an agent. If you have some contacts, you can still get into houses like Tor, but your chances of a big launch with a big publisher aren’t good without an agent.

I’d recommend going to every fantasy writing group and convention you can, and joining every related association you can. Get to know published fantasy authors. Ask if they’ll read your first chapter and give you feedback. If they like it, offer to let them read the whole book (you might get a blurb from them), and ask if they can introduce you to their editor or agent. That gets your foot in the door and moves your manuscript out of the slush pile and into their in-basket.

My take is different; here’s what I sent to Steve:

Only got a moment here, but I’d say that what’s in the Quora response is not quite right. First, I always recommend people start not by going to conventions (as was suggested by the person you quoted), but to large bookstores. Spend hours — days! — studying the science fiction and fantasy section. Pick up each book in turn and look at it. See what it’s about; see who published it; see how many printings it’s had (the lowest number on the list of digits at the bottom of the copyright page is the printing number; it’s a rough-and-ready estimate of how successful the book has been); if it’s a paperback, see if it had previously been a hardcover (it’ll list the previous edition on the copyright page; the books publishers consider more significant or expect better sales from tend to start out in hardcover); if it’s a Tor book — and you’ll see a lot of them — see who edited it; Tor is unique among the major publishers in listing that on the copyright page, too.

After you’ve done this, you should know what sorts of books Baen publishes; what kinds flourish at Tor; what makes a typical DAW book, and so on. You’ll also know which small presses are managing to get their books actually distributed in bookstores (few do). And, most important of all, you’ll know where your own book would most comfortably fit in, leading you to the most-appropriate publisher (and, indeed, with Tor, to the specific editor) to query.

Most big publishers do prefer agented submissions, and will only take unsolicited submissions (that is, ones they didn’t specifically ask for) from agents. But a well-presented query letter can indeed lead to an editor at many houses asking for (that is, soliciting) your manuscript, so it’s not a completely closed shop.

Most of us who have agents got them by doing short fiction, and a new writer is well-advised to start with that (think of a novel as the Major League; do you really expect to start there, rather than first paying your dues in the minors)? Biggest advantage of an agent at the submission stage is that he/she can follow up repeatedly with the editor to hopefully get a more timely response; at Tor, for instance, the response time to unagented submissions is typically three years or so; an agent, if he/she has any clout, should get your manuscript read in a matter of months (or days, if he/she thinks the property is super-hot).

You quoted someone as saying, “If they [the author you’ve buttonholed at a convention] like it [your opening chapters], offer to let them read the whole book (you might get a blurb from them), and ask if they can introduce you to their editor or agent.”

Ummm, well, yeah, maybe; but, y’know, editors and agents are professional gatekeepers. We authors aren’t. We might choose to take someone under our wing — I’m mentoring several writers of my own choosing currently — but never once has a stranger at a con successfully pestered me into doing any of the things that the respondent suggested. And, y’know, although once or twice when I felt my editors were dropping the ball, I’ve been importunate enough to ask a colleague for a blurb, but in general, that’s handled by the editor on behalf of the author, and occurs after the book is sold; it’s very rare for authors to issue endorsements for unsold books.

The aspirant writers I have tended to champion over the years have been my own writing students. Some of us authors teach writing (often or occasionally); taking a course by one of us, or going to Clarion or Odyssey, is a better way to cement relationships with mentors than going to SF/F conventions with the mindset of, “Oh, look! A published writer! He/she must have come here so that I could use them to advance my own career!” Puh-leeze.

15th anniversary of Pope Mary’s abdication

by Rob - July 6th, 2015

Scientists dream of having their work published in either Science (the leading American scientific journal) or Nature (the great British one).

Imagine my surprise, then, when I received a commission from Dr. Henry Gee, the Senior Editor of Nature, to write an original 800-word science-fiction story for that magazine (a commission that concluded, in delightful British fashion, by proffering “apologies for this intrusion”). Nature was publishing a series of short stories, beginning with a contribution from my favorite SF writer, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, in celebration of the dawn of the new millennium.

I was thrilled to contribute the following. I deliberately touched on the theme of my twelfth novel Calculating God, since that book would be hitting the bookstore shelves just as this story saw print in the summer of 2000.

The Abdication of Pope Mary III

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright 2000 by Robert J. Sawyer

First published in Nature, July 6, 2000.

Darth Vader’s booming voice, still the network’s trademark 600 years after its founding: “This is CNN.”

And then the news anchor: “Our top story: Pope Mary III abdicated this morning. Giancarlo DiMarco, our correspondent in Vatican City, has the details. Giancarlo?”

“Thanks, Lisa. The unprecedented has indeed happened: after 312 years of service, Pope Mary III stepped down today. Traditionally, the conclave of Roman Catholic cardinals waits 18 days after the death of a pope before beginning deliberations to choose a successor, but Mary — who has returned to her birth name of Sharon Cheung — is alive and well, and so the members of the conclave have already been sealed inside the Vatican Palace, where they will remain until they’ve chosen Mary’s replacement. Although no new pope has been elected for over 300 years, the traditional voting method will be used. We are now watching the Sistine Chapel for the smoke that indicates the ballots have been burned following a round of voting. And — Lisa, Lisa, it’s happening right now! There’s smoke coming out, and — no, you can hear the disappointment of the crowd. It’s black smoke; that means no candidate has yet received the required majority of two-thirds plus one. But we’ll keep watching.”

“Thank you, Giancarlo. Let’s take a look at Pope Mary’s press conference, given earlier today.”

Tight shot on Mary, looking only a tenth of her four hundred years: “Since Vatican IV reaffirmed the principle of papal infallibility,” she said, “and since I now believe that I was indeed in error 216 years ago when I issued a bull instructing Catholics to reject the evidence of the two Benmergui experiments, I feel compelled to step down …”


“We’re joined now in studio by Joginder Singh, professor of physics at the University of Toronto. Dr. Singh, can you explain the Benmergui experiments for our viewers?”

“Certainly, Lisa,” said Singh. “The first proved that John Cramer’s transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics, proposed in the late 20th century, is in fact correct.”

“And that means …?”

“It means that the many-worlds interpretation is flat-out wrong: new parallel universes are not spawned each time a quantum event could go multiple ways. This is the one and only extant iteration of reality.”

“And Dr. Benmergui’s second experiment?”

“It proved the current cycle of creation was only the seventh such ever; just six other big-bang / big-crunch oscillations preceded our current universe. The combined effect of these two facts led directly to Pope Mary’s crisis of faith, specifically because they proved the existence of — one might as well use the word — God.”

“How? I’m sure our viewers are scratching their heads …”

“Well, you see, the observation, dating back to the 20th century, that the fundamental parameters of the universe seem fine-tuned to an almost infinite degree specifically to give rise to life, could previously be dismissed as a statistical artifact caused by the existence of many contemporaneous parallel universes or a multitude of previous ones. In all of that, every possible combination would crop up by chance, and so it wouldn’t be remarkable that there was a universe like this one — one in which the force of gravity is just strong enough to allow stars and planets to coalesce but not just a little bit stronger, causing the universe to collapse long before life could have developed. Likewise the value of the strong nuclear force, which holds atoms together, seems finely tuned, as do the thermal properties of water, and on and on.”

“So our universe is a very special place?”

“Exactly. And since, as Kathryn Benmergui proved, this is the only current universe, and one of just a handful that have ever existed, then the life-generating properties of the very specific fundamental constants that define reality are virtually impossible to explain except as the results of deliberate design.”

“But then why would Pope Mary resign? Surely if science has proven the existence of a creator …?”

Singh smiled. “Ah, but that creator is clearly not the God of the Bible or the Torah or the Qur’an. Rather, the creator is a physicist, and we are one of his or her experiments. Science hasn’t reconciled itself with religion; it has superseded it, and —”

“I’m sorry to interrupt, Dr. Singh, but our reporter in Vatican City has some breaking news. Giancarlo, over to you …”

“Lisa, Lisa — the incredible is happening. At first I thought they were just tourists coming out of the Sistine Chapel, but they’re not — I recognize Fontecchio and Leopardi and several of the others. But none of them are wearing robes; they’re in street clothes. I haven’t taken my eyes off the chapel: there’s been no plume of white smoke, meaning they haven’t elected a new leader of the church. But the cardinals are coming out. They’re coming outside, heading into St. Peter’s Square. The crowd is stunned, Lisa — it can only mean one thing …”

# # # # #

Robert J. Sawyer online:

No one’s going to get that!

by Rob - June 29th, 2015

I say this in gentle good humour — I am extraordinarily grateful to my beta readers — but I always find it amusing that, without fail, some will say, “I get this joke, but will your readers?,” or “I know this word, but will your readers?” Now, of course, I have jokes that fall flat in early drafts and I sometimes use words that very few people know (or that I’ve misspelled so badly that no one recognizes them), or employ abbreviations (such as NDA or IMDb) without spelling them out.

But never do the “I don’t get it” or “huh?” remarks I do get on jokes or words coincide with the ones that other people think others won’t know or get. And, you know what? It’s good to have things that seem obscure but really aren’t: people are thrilled to find something in a book that makes them think they’re the only one in the world who will get it. It’s part of what we mean when we say a particular book “speaks to me.”

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Character biographies

by Rob - June 29th, 2015

Over on my Facebook wall, Matthew B. Tepper of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society asked me, “Do you also create life histories for your characters (at least the principal ones) that contain details that might not make it into the final text of the novel?” My reply:

I do not. I know others do, but I build the details of my characters’ lives brick by brick as needed to support the narrative I want to tell. For instance, a turning point in my forthcoming novel (minor, but mentioned) is that in a schoolyard fight, when he was eight, the protagonist almost killed a bully. That feeds into his future actions and is referenced a couple of times in the text. But the fact that — arbitrarily — his family went to Disneyland when he was 12, and he got lost, and blah blah blah? Nah; I construct stuff like that when I need it, and when it helps. Sure, characters have a few arbitrary traits that don’t pay off — in my new novel, the protagonists loves bananas — but that’s mentioned. Whether he loves, or hates, peaches, I have no idea; it was never relevant to decide that.

Another example: in an early draft of the novel, a character had a tattoo covering a scar; in a later draft, I changed what the tattoo was of to something that made way more symbolic sense — but if I’d written a “bible” for that character, would I have been nimble enough to realize that something more appropriate for the actual story could be used instead?

For more on this, see my column on constructing characters.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Happy 20th birthday to my website

by Rob - June 28th, 2015

Happy 20th birthday to my World Wide Web site! I freely admit it shows its age — but it also has grown to over a million words of text and over 800 documents — and it’s been online since June 28, 1995. Give it a visit at

Robert J. Sawyer online: