Is There Survivor Bias in Analyzing Publishing Success in Today’s Print-On-Demand World?

I belong to an Indie Publishing Group on Goodreads. A frequent topic of discussion focuses on the benefits/challenges of having one’s work published using a traditional publisher versus publishing independently .

A traditional publisher, in this sense, is a company who essentially buys your work, usually paying the author an advance and a royalty on each book sold). The publisher then controls and funds the finalization of the book and manages placement of the book (and e-book) for purchase. Below is a comment by a colleague and group contributor on the relative merits of traditional versus independent publishing.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when the number of living published authors totaled hundreds of thousands. Today, anyone with access to a personal computer and the internet can become a published author; so the exclusive club of hundreds of thousands now numbers in the millions. A highly competitive field became ridiculously competitive.

Literary agents and traditional publishers are literally swamped with queries from aspiring authors. Most are discarded immediately. Only a bare fraction are given serious consideration. The market is saturated to the point that there are almost as many published authors as there are avid readers.

The vast majority of self-published authors will never land a contract with a traditional publisher or become commercially successful. That said; some do. The important thing is to accept the facts and face reality.

The complete comment and the thread associated with it can be found at this Link.

The analysis is probably correct in the facts or trends that it presents, but I think it misses an important point. I have lived through the transition from offset printed books to print-on-demand books and wide acceptance of e-books.

In the days “not so long ago” when “the number of living published authors totaled hundreds of thousands” there were many aspiring authors who worked on manuscripts (perhaps for years), sent them in for acceptance to acquisition editors only to find their manuscripts rejected. Since the gatekeepers completely controlled who became an author and who didn’t, these unsuccessful individuals never became official authors and never were able to get their books to the people who matter most, that is their readers.

In summary I contend that the writers who now are termed independent authors, have always been there, but because there was no avenue for them to take control of their publishing, they languished in obscurity, and through no fault of their own were never considered authors because they never published a book. They do not show up in the publishing statistics of their era (this is what I mean by survivor bias–you have to publish a book to be considered a successful (or unsuccessful author). Writing and not being able to publish doesn’t count in the older statistics even though they could be considered as authors who sold zero books).

Quoting once again:

Literary agents and traditional publishers are literally swamped with queries from aspiring authors. Most are discarded immediately. Only a bare fraction are given serious consideration. The market is saturated to the point that there are almost as many published authors as there are avid readers.

These points are very interesting to me. Particularly: “The market is saturated to the point that there are almost as many published authors as there are avid readers.

As an independent author, I am an avid reader. I was an avid reader long before I wrote my first novel. However, several things have changed for me as independent authors have made their presence felt in the book market place. I interact with other independent authors and find that I read many more independently authored books than before because I know the authors. The loss of my reading time is most severe for the big traditional publishers. As independent authors we have our own reading community.

Quoting once again:

The vast majority of self-published authors will never land a contract with a traditional publisher or become commercially successful. That said; some do. The important thing is to accept the facts and face reality.

I think this statement may well be true. Becoming an independent author or Micro-Publishing as I prefer to call it, is really a small business venture and as such must be considered carefully. From my own experience, a simple calculation I have used has helped me: consider clearing $1.50 per book sold. How many books would you have to sell to make the business viable for you in the long term? Authors, with different family situations, living in different parts of the country, and with different lifestyle requirements may have quite different answers to this question. Still, I contend the real comparison ought to be between independent authors and those many predecessors who wrote books, but never had them published. They spen their time and money with zero return.

In summary, I am grateful to my colleague in the Goodreads Independent author group for commenting on this topic. I hope my contributions to the discussion were helpful. I am glad to have the opportunity to be an independent author and get my books into the hands of my readers, a possibility which would not likely have occurred twenty years ago.

Disclaimer

I do not offer publishing, small business, or other financial advice. I offer my own history, observations, and comments up in the hope they will stimulate thinking and discussion.

For the previous post in this Micro-Publishing follow this link.

Five Star Review of THE DRAGONS OF SHEOL on Amazon-UK

Link to the original posting
Re-printed below in a more readable font

The main difficulty for me with the Halcyon Cycle has been the interval between books! On this occasion, (having previously written to ask when this was coming out) Peter kindly sent me a free review copy, which I found waiting for me on my return from a trip away. I was tired from my travels; so that made a perfect excuse to put my feet up and read – and I devoured over a third of the book in one day! After that, I decided I had better catch up on my other work and rationed myself quite severely. One tip: if, like me, it’s about 2 years since you read the last book I’d recommend re-reading that first. Maybe even re-read both. I found that I had become pretty hazy over some of the details: but I was so intent on following the story that I failed to notice the helpful glossary and maps at the back until I’d almost finished.

The book is very fast-paced, as Al and his friends engage in an increasingly desperate search to trace his wife and adopted son before they are lost forever in the terrifying abyss called Sheol. This leaves them less time for philosophical debate than in previous books. Nevertheless, the philosophical element is still present, covering such issues as the social bankruptcy of [tyranny], duty in the face of despair and whether the goodies are always good or the baddies irredeemably bad.

The book ends on a high note: but this is very evidently the calm before the storm. Key questions remain unanswered; and the eventual outcome is far from certain. Will good ultimately triumph over the evils that may arise from the depths of Sheol, from within the ranks of the Ancient Ones, or from Earth itself? Is there going to be another trilogy? I won’t be satisfied until I see the next series.

Authors, Shadow-Banning and Big Data

I follow the blogs of Steve Laube and his associates. Steve is a well-established agent and he and his associates represent many christian writers. As a service he and his associates frequently publish posts of interest to the writing community in general.

Last month, Thomas Umstattd, Jr. published a post entitled How to Protect Your Author Platform from Big Tech Censorship [link]. It’s an article well-worth reading and I wanted to talk about it.

Before I talk about big tech censorship, an apology, or perhaps, a disclaimer is necessary. On PeterKazmaier.com, I blog about writing, reading, topics that affect writers, and personal reflections on my own faith journey. I scrupulously avoid politics. The topic today, although it strongly affects writers, gets fairly close to the political line. I do not intend to comment on what makes people take offense at various writing points of view, I merely want to make writers aware of the danger for their own work and the social media platforms they use to publicize it.

So what is shadow-banning? Shadow-banning is the social media practice or condition in which the author of a post on a social media platform posts some information, assuming that it will be faithfully disseminated to the friends, followers, or others who have indicated they want to receive the authors content. However, usually unknown to the author, some kind of a filter has been interposed so the content does not reach some or all who have indicated they want to receive it.

A related problem can occur with free search engines or search commands on social media. One assumes the results are faithful to the search request, but it is possible to eliminate or downgrade priority on certain search results. This kind of search filter has a similar effect to shadow-banning in that search results that directly relate to the search request, are either eliminated or moved to say page 27 in the list of search results.

So what can I do to safe guard myself against this kind of censorship?

For my part, my core content is always located in my WordPress websites. I will refer to them using social media, but I will likely never know when those links are censored or why. Still if the core content is there, interested readers can still find it and often some social media pathways will still stay open.

As a reader, when I want to receive someone’s content, I keep a link to their blog, RSS their podcasts, and/or sign up for an email when new content appears. Several of the sites I follow have had their accounts frozen, deleted or have been shadow-banned. I had to go their website to see the content the social media provider wanted to keep me from seeing.

What do you do to protect yourself against big data censorship?

Kazmaier Summer 2019 Update

Kathy and I had a chance to spend thirteen glorious days at our cottage near Seeley’s Bay, Ontario. The days were mostly sunny and the weather was warm. Here are some of our highlights.

It’s a time to disconnect from the internet, enjoy God’s wonderful creation, and see the beauty of the natural world.

Swan at Evening

We’ve had our cottage since 1989 and never before have we seen swans in our bay. I have seen them elsewhere on the Rideau, but never in our bay. Here is a picture of one with the evening reflection of the trees coloring the water,

Blanding Turtle

We often see turtles in the water, but this is the first time one was wandering across our front lawn. My best guess, after looking at the eight turtle species of Ontario, is that it was a Blanding Turtle, although I didn’t handle it to check for a yellow neck and characteristic markings on the plastron.

Porcupine in Elm Just Off Porch

We have a small elm on the front lawn just ten feet from the porch. To our surprise we had a large porcupine in it. Thankfully it left at the first opportunity. I don’t know if our dog knows the danger of porcupines and they can damage buildings if they set their mind to it.

Morning Kayak on the Rideau

One morning I was up before dawn and took my kayak up the channel. It was beautiful seeing the first glimmer of sunrise from the water. It reminded me of Proverbs 4:18

“But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.” [ESV]

As I thought about it, most people would say this metaphor has it backwards: our lives begin with the dawn, progress through the noon day of young adulthood and then fade into night as we grow old and die. But I think Proverbs has it right. As Christ-followers, old-age is like the darkness before the dawn, but we have a great hope and look forward to a glorious sunrise. I find that a very cheerful thought.

Finally, one of the things I am able to do consistently at the cottage is write. I had set as my objective to complete the first draft of my next book: Coventry 2091. I didn’t quite achieve it, but I came close. My first drafts are very crude and really show up the defects in my story, but even so it’s a major milestone for me.

Now Something I had Intended to Add

Othello, our dog, often watches to make sure that everything is okay at the cottage. If it is not, you can be sure he goes out to investigate.

http://bit.ly/2YRduRP_Othello-Door

My Copies of THE DRAGONS OF SHEOL Have Arrived

When I finally received my copies of The Dragons of Sheol yesterday, it seems like the long process of writing this book has come to an end and I can concentrate on the next one, Coventry 2091.

As a novelist who is trying to build his reputation, I realize many readers take a chance to spend their time and money reading one of my books because they have come to know me personally and so have become interested in what I write. Indeed, as a writer, one pours so much of oneself into one’s book you can probably get to know how I think and look at life much more clearly through my writing than simply by speaking with me.
When I first started out, personal sales, including sales where I mailed my books to readers was a big part of getting the word out. In those early days, I could mail my books to readers in Canada for $7-$8 postage (from a mailing perspective, unfortunately none of my books except Questioning Your Way to Faith is small enough to be sent as a letter-sized package). Now, there are so many surcharges that even with a small business discount, it can cost me $17.50 to mail one book to a small town in Ontario (I could drive it there for that). There is no point in giving my readers a $6-$10 discount when they buy a trade paperback from me if the postage costs $17.50. If you buy from Amazon®, you can often get free shipping if you are willing to aggregate orders. For Chapter/Indigo® one can avoid shipping cost all together if one is will to drive to the nearest store for pickup.

So where does that leave me? I had discussed this change in the dynamics Indie book publishing in a previous post. For me it means personal sales that avoid postage charges are very important. I always carry a few carefully bubble-wrapped copies of my books in a satchel in my van. If people express an interest in my writing when they meet me, I can let them buy a book from me directly and avoid the postage charges. So if you see me, and want one of my books at a discount, be sure to ask.

Launch Special: 99-Cent Sale (USD) on THE HALCYON CYCLE Books 1 and 2

Wolfsburg Imprints has never run a sale on The Battle for Halcyon, but they are running a 99-cent sale now on this e-book for a limited time as launch-bonus for book 3, The Dragons of Sheol. If you haven’t yet tried books 1 and 2 in The Halcyon Cycle or, if you’re like me, and wish to have an e-book copy for reading after “lights out,” now is the time to take advantage of this special value. You’ll need a free Kindle® app on your smart phone or tablet to read these e-books.

Download the e-books from my Amazon® author page.

For my Canadian readers, even though my publisher (Word Alive Press) is based in Winnipeg, the Amazon sale listing in is USD. That currently translates approximately to $1.32 CAD.

Barnes and Noble® has been the First to List THE DRAGONS OF SHEOL

The first listing of THE DRAGONS OF SHEOL

Barnes and Noble® were the first to list The Dragons of Sheol. If you would like to check it out, here is the link.

I’m often asked: “Can you make money as an indie author?”

When people ask me this question, they are usually asking because they or someone they know is active or will be active in writing a book, and they are wondering what to expect. Others ask it because they are skeptical that it is even possible to make money without going through a traditional publisher.

My answer is usually a qualified “yes” it is possible (but certainly not guaranteed) to make money through an indie or as I prefer to call it, a micro-publishing endeavor.

Why the qualification? There are three basic reasons.

Indie or Micro-Publishing is a Small Business Endeavor

The first thing that one has to remember: Micro-Publishing is a small business. Like other small businesses, this means you will likely not be making money out of the starting gate. Rather, like other small business start-ups, you will have to put in long hours with little remuneration, and finally there is significant risk that you will run out of money, patience, or interest before the business begins to pay off. This comes with the territory of starting something you own.

A case in point, many writers that try to find a traditional publisher also spend a great deal of time writing with no remuneration and then attempting to convince a publisher to take on their manuscript (also with no remuneration). This start-up time when taking the traditional route is often excluded from pay-back calculations. The writers who run out of money, patience, or interest choosing this route are ignored leading to a “survivor bias” when comparing traditionally published authors with indie authors.

Many writers augment their early cash flow with writing-related income, for example, editing, free-lance magazine submissions, contract writing for trade journal or instruction manuals. In my own case, since I write Science Fiction, I tutor in physics and chemistry, as well as provide chemistry consulting as a way of staying connected to science.

Indie or Micro-Publishing is an Annuity Business

Secondly, Micro-Publishing is an annuity-driven small business. When you publish your first book, there will be an initial flurry of interest and then slower sales over the long term. Long-term sales depend on how many people hear about your book and hear enough good things to take a chance to buy it. You may also get copyright remuneration or some remuneration for library usage. These long-term sales are your annuity.

The key point: as you write more books, this annuity stream will grow, but often in the initial stages, the up-front costs of writing and publishing more books will grow faster than the annuity stream.

Most Writers Care About the Art as Much or More than They Care About the Business

Finally, writers are artists as well as business-owners. They have a message or art they wish to develop which is often more important to them than the money. I’ve often been told, “If you wrote Science Fiction more like mainstream SF, you would sell more books.” I think that’s true, but I wanted to write Science Fiction that I would like to read but no one else has bothered to write. For me that means I explore worldview, spiritual, and philosophic questions as well as maintaining a strong science component in my novels. Not optimizing only for the money, probably puts one on a slower growth trajectory, but through it I hope to connect with kindred spirits who long for the same kind of story that I seek.

So What Should I Worry About as an Indie Writer?

1. Scalability

First, ask yourself what happens if my next book goes viral and hundreds, even thousands of readers want it at once? Can your distribution system handle it? If you only sell personal copies or mail them yourself, the answer is probably “no.” If some other organization handles the sales, then the answer is likely “yes.” In other words, make sure your distribution channel is scalable in case the breakthrough you hope for happens.

2. Marketing

Writers are often taught to market aggressively. I won’t do that for two reasons: (1) I don’t want to approach anyone in a way that I would not want to be approached. I don’t like aggressive tactics so I won’t use them. (2) I started to realize that when friends would see me, they would immediately think “I haven’t bought Peter’s book yet.” I don’t want that either. Their friendship is much more important to me than a sale. They need to know that they don’t have to like or buy my books to be my friend. That thought should not even come up.

As a consequence, most of my “advertising” or marketing is low-key on social media, by email signatures, or by magnetic signs on my vehicle. Word of mouth, without my intervention, is still the best form of advertising. Improving my writing craft so that readers will enjoy my books so much that they will give them as gifts or recommend them to friends and family is my long term objective.

3. Things Change Unexpectedly

When I published my first book, it was still possible to use Canada Post to mail books to customers at a reasonable shipping charge. Now so many surcharges, special charges have been added that even with a small-business discount, it can cost me $17.50 to ship one book to a nearby small town. Who can afford to pay that much on a book worth $20-30? the answer is “no one.”

This unexpected change has shut down one potential channel for reaching readers. These kinds of changes that are beyond a writer’s control have a major impact on the business. Like all small businesses, one has to adapt and make sure there are several ways to get your books to your readers.

Final Thoughts

Above all, keep writing, connect with like-minded readers, and connect with other writers who share your passion to communicate with others and bring a little beauty and inspiration into their lives.



Disclaimer

I do not offer publishing, small business, or other financial advice. I offer my own history, observations, and comments up in the hope they will stimulate thinking and discussion.



Kazmaier 2019 Spring Newsletter

Personal News

Most of our immediate family birthdays occur from mid-December to mid-May. Kathy and I have had a wonderful time celebrating almost non-stop since Christmas. This culminated with our youngest grandson’s birthday in May along with Grandparent’s Day hosted by the school our two oldest grandchildren attend.

Family is truly a blessing and we are thankful that everyone lives within driving distance.

We also had a cold winter and were privileged to get away from the ice and snow and spend a few days with my sister and her husband in La Quinta near Palm Springs. The picture below shows the lagoon in their gated community that Kathy and I would walk around daily for exercise.

This year we opened our cottage in mid-May (which is quite early for us). When we arrived the trees still had buds and we had a open view up and down the water way. When we left, less than a week later, the leaves were all out and we had our more usual seclusion and privacy. I’ve attached a couple of pictures from the cottage to show that Spring is truly here.

It was interesting to me that on Grandparent’s Day the grade one class showed us their writing project. The picture below shows they process they followed. It’s exactly the same process I follow to produce my books (although I am sure I go through it much more slowly than they did). It’s a wonderful school. Kathy and I are so glad our grandchildren are able to attend there.

This June is the 50th anniversary of my Crescent Heights High School class’s graduation. I am disappointed that I cannot make the trip out west right now and join the festivities, but I wish my classmates well and am grateful for the re-connections I have been able to make in the lead-up to this significant event.

Peter’s Writing

This spring has also been a significant milestone in my writing journey as shown in the picture above. I’ve just completed my fourth book, The Dragons of Sheol, the final book in The Halcyon Cycle. The print copy should be available in a few weeks, and the e-book likely earlier. I have already been working on my next book which I have tentatively entitled Coventry 2091.

I continue to work to improve my writing with each successive book. I hope this is my best book yet. My readers have always been helpful and I hope to hear from them.

If you are interested, either follow my website for unfolding news [ Peterkazmaier.com ] or check out one of my author pages such as at Amazon.

As always, one of my favorite aspects of these infrequent newsletters are the emails Kathy and I receive back. These personal contacts mean so much and give us a chance to re-connect with our friends.

Books are Expensive!

Books are expensive, especially if you buy hard cover or trade paperbacks and have to include the shipping costs. It makes sense then to be reasonably sure the money you’re spending is worthwhile.

June is launch month for my latest book, The Dragons of Sheol, the third and final book in The Halcyon Cycle. This book should list on Amazon in a few weeks. If you think you might be interested, why not read the first few chapters. The first chapter is appended. I plan to make a few more chapters available for reading later in the month.

If the image does not display use this link to read the original blog with images.

Here is the first chapter of my upcoming book, The Dragons of Sheol. I like books that begin quickly, with a good deal of action right away. I hope you enjoy it.

Chapter 1 Dirty Tricks

Copyright © 2019 by Peter Kazmaier

Dave glowered at the diminutive figure darting and swaying before him like a jack-in-the-box. Wiping the sweat from his swollen left eye, Dave mumbled to himself, “Come here Brandor, you half pint. All I need is one touch with my quarterstaff and you’re finished.” Not for the first time in this match, Dave wished he had picked a lighter weapon. Maybe then he could land a blow.

His fellow students at Gur Academy stood in a circle around the two combatants, cheering them on.

“Come on Rokodor,” called one using Dave’s Gurundarian name, “All you have to do is fall on the little squirt to win.”

“Brandor, stop with the bouncing around. You make my eyes tired,” chimed in another.

Dave fixed his eyes on Brandor’s, whose slender form was seventy pounds lighter than Dave’s solid, well-muscled body. He could smell Brandor’s self-confidence. Then he saw his opponent turn and smile at one of the young women watching them. Dave seized on the moment and rushed in, raising the end of his staff for a quick blow.

Brandor evaded the swing easily, crouched and swung a low, sweeping blow at Dave. Dave felt a sharp crack on the side of his leg. It sent him sprawling to the ground, gasping in pain. He moved to get onto his feet.

“Stop!” came the order from the Academy commandant. Brandor was poised to drive his quarterstaff into Dave’s head, as Dave crouched, vulnerable, on the ground. Dave dug his fingers into the sand of the practice ground. He could smell Brandor’s indecision. He could sense his hatred.

“You’re lucky, skork. You don’t belong here with us. Go back to your own kind,” said Brandor through gritted teeth. Sullenly, he pulled his weapon back from the killing blow, then stood at attention, facing the commandant.

Skork was the pejorative used to describe all bent and broken peoples from the zombie-like Apemen, to the Halfmen, and even to Dave’s own people who were inferior to the Ancients in longevity, speed, and several other attributes.

Brandor was a young nephew of Arachodor, a member of the ruling Council of Thirteen. Arachodor had objected strenuously to Dave’s acceptance into Gurundarian society, after Sirona the healer had called him back from death. In saving him using a healing plant tuned only to Ancients, Sirona had changed Dave’s body from that of a Lesser Man (what Ancients called ordinary people from earth) to that of an Ancient.

I wonder if Brandor would have killed me if the commandant hadn’t stopped the match? No one’s been killed during Academy combat training in more than a hundred years, Dave thought.

He stood up gingerly and limped toward the circle of onlookers. The Academy stood high on the western slopes of the Barrier Mountains and he could see the vast expanse of Lake Tolbar shimmering in the distance. His wife, Arlana, came toward him. Clutching his right arm to support him, she walked with him away from the crowd.

Dave was glad she didn’t talk about the fight. She had neither his strength nor toughness, but she was as fast as thought. She had deftly handled Brandor in a sparring match the previous week. She still had a bruise where Brandor had flailed out and “accidently” hit her when she had started to walk away after their match. Dave had planned to teach Brandor a lesson today—and hadn’t been able to touch him. The humiliation was almost unbearable.

“Well, husband,” said Arlana, “are you ready for our expedition test the day after tomorrow?”

“I think I’m ready, Princess. Any idea where we’re going?”

“I hear we’re heading to the eastern slopes of the Barrier Mountains to replant the guardian trees that were burned by the Halfmen.”

“Sounds easy enough,” said Dave.

“Things are never easy when we’re close to the Skull Mountains,” said Arlana.

“I wish we could get some leave and head home,” said Dave.

“You’re thinking what I’m thinking—how are Al, Pam and Little Thomas?”

“I am. Since we’ve been at the Academy, we haven’t been able to visit our ‘mailbox’ to see if they’ve sent us a message from home. They’re probably wondering why we haven’t answered.”

“Shhhh, Dave. Keep your voice down,” whispered Arlana.

Dave glanced over his shoulder, relieved that there was no one in sight.

“Anyway,” continued Arlana, still whispering, “Since Al and Pam know we’re away at the Academy, I don’t think they’ll be too worried about our lack of communication.”

When they finally reached their quarters, Dave went out back to wash in the creek-fed shower. When he returned, he saw Arlana and Ferris, her cousin, in serious conversation. They looked up as he limped in.

“What’s going on?” asked Dave. “You look like there’s been a death in the family.”

“We have trouble, Dave,” said Ferris. “Your old enemy, Arachodor, used his influence with some of the teachers. He’s made the motion that you shouldn’t be allowed to join the cadets on their expedition. They claim your lack of competence makes the trip too dangerous for you.”

“Arachodor’s concern for my welfare is—well—touching. Can they really do that?”

“They can, and they are trying to do exactly that. I’m about to head over there now, to intercede on your behalf. You deserve to take this first test. Arlana and I have been training since we were very young. You may not have had all the instruction we’ve had, but you’ve seen more real combat than half the Rangers in our force. That should count for something. Perhaps they’ll listen to a seasoned Ranger who knows you.”

Dave sat down and poured himself a cup of siph. “What I don’t get is why Arachodor’s argument for my exclusion is even being considered. After all, we’re only going camping alone on the other side of the Barrier Mountains; there will be seasoned Rangers and Guardians on patrol—so where’s the danger?”

“Husband, as I said before, anytime we are on the other side of the Barrier Mountains we are in the wild and there is danger. The guardian trees have been destroyed in large measure, so there is no protection from that quarter.”

“But I thought,” interrupted Dave, “that the Bent Ones had all fled to Abaddon, and the Halfmen would be cowering in the Skull Mountains, nursing their wounds.”

“We have no proof,” said Ferris, “that the Bent One controlling the Halfmen has left. He may have left. He may still be there. Or maybe a black swamp oak has been established in the Skull Mountains, so that he can travel back and forth to Abaddon. We just don’t know, and so we assume the worst. That is why we train so long before venturing beyond the Barrier Mountains. From the cadet leader’s point of view, you have had much less training than the other recruits.”

After Ferris left, Arlana looked at Dave as if she were deciding whether to tell him something.

“What is it, Arlana?”

“What Ferris said, about us learning to fight from our earliest years is true, you know.”

“Are you telling me you know why I’m losing to a pipsqueak like Brandor? I know I’m losing because I’m just too slow.”

“You’re not too slow. You’re actually much faster now than you were before you became one of us. You’re losing because he knows exactly what you’re going to do a fraction of a second before you do it. Let me show you.”

She picked up her light quarterstaff and took up a defensive position with her left foot forward. Look at the muscles in my arm and my calf; do you see how they’re tensed? It means I’m getting ready to evade.” She shifted slightly. “Now I’m ready to launch an attack. Do you see the difference?”

“So that’s why you beat the little twerp. He was so busy watching your beautiful muscles flexing and unflexing that he completely forgot to defend himself.”

Arlana jabbed Dave in the shoulder with her quarterstaff. “Kree ah na koo![1] Stop joking. This is serious. In two days you could be out on the mountain slope without me to take care of you. How would it look if you got yourself killed? All the women would wonder if you went out looking for death to get away from me. Think of what that would do to my reputation.” They both burst out laughing.

She knows how to handle me. She’s not just good to me—she’s good for me, Dave thought.

“One more thing, husband. You probably don’t yet realize how much more acute your sense of smell is now that you’re an Ancient. By paying attention to your nose, you can tell a lot about your opponent. Is he fearful? Is he confident? Is his anger growing? All these emotions will tell you what he will do next.”

They sparred for a couple of hours with only the occasional breather. Dave began to see what Arlana meant and started to anticipate her moves. Then Arlana showed him how to disguise his next move by deliberately attacking from a disguised defensive posture.

The door opened and Ferris entered again. He was scowling.

Dave’s spirits flagged. “I take it they won’t let me go.”

“Actually,” said Ferris, “they were surprisingly easy to convince. Your father-in-law, Kelldor, and your adopted father Celyddon, had anticipated this last-minute difficulty and were both there to speak on your behalf. The board of the school logged Arachodor’s protests, and then capitulated, agreeing to let you go.”

“So why the long face?” asked Arlana.

“It was too easy,” said Ferris. “I think all of us have been duped. They’re digging a pit for you through the test, and they wanted to register their disapproval in advance. If you have an ‘accident,’ they’ll shake their heads and say, ‘We did all we could to avert this tragedy.’ Be on your guard and watch your back.”

It was getting late and Ferris left. Dave and Arlana began to organize their equipment for the trip. Dave tried on his living cloak, hung a small satchel containing a light gourd around his neck and strapped on his long belt knife, which he had named Skene Dhu. Dave had found his knife, along with his sword, Gram, in a blade tree near the Ancient fortress of Kellburg.

Dave realized he needed a tie to fasten his sleeping blanket to his pack. He had some stout leather, which he had taken from the hide of a Rokash. He took out Skene Dhu and examined the blade lovingly. It had a lustrous blue sheen unlike any other metal blade. The bioengineered alloy of molybdenum-tungsten steel, protein spacer, and diamond fiber, cut through thick Rokash leather as if it were the thinnest of papers.

He put the knife back in the metal-lined sheath and walked over to Arlana.

“Princess, I want you to take this.” He held out Skene Dhu.

“Dave, I couldn’t. The blade tree knife came to you. I have a good knife …”

“Arlana, please take it. I need to keep you safe. If you don’t have this knife, I’ll worry.”

She peered into his eyes, as if wanting to wrest his thoughts from him. Suddenly she relaxed, raised herself on her toes, and kissed him lightly on the cheek.

“We’ll trade knives. Viper will look after you.” She handed him her knife and scabbard and then they both turned to organize their packing.

__________

“No, no ye fool,” Grimbor, the Blade Meister growled as he jabbed Dave in the lower chest. “Rokodor, ye canna shift from an evade form directly to a cut or thrust form. Yer feet are not set. It makes ye too slow. How many times do I have to tell ye that ye must use a transition form first?”

Dave was exhausted. Grimbor had summoned him, to offer some extra help on using his sword after yesterday’s fiasco with his quarterstaff. Now after three hours, Dave was laboring and Grimbor didn’t even seem to be tired.

Dave began to circle once more. Grimbor was shaped like a fire hydrant, with no waist. He was much shorter than Dave, but his shoulders were just as broad. Yet he was fast as well as strong. With his eyes fixed on Dave’s, Grimbor’s feet and sword moved in perfect coordination, with a grace and fluidity Dave wished he could match.

After another flurry of exchanges during which Dave was barely able to evade and block the lightning attacks, Grimbor sighed and said, “Enough fer today.” Sitting down, he gestured to a space on the bench beside him and offered Dave a drink of water.

Dave took a long pull from the water skin and handed it back to Grimbor.

“I know I’m bein’ hard on ye lad, but I’m tryin’ to get ye ready for the test tomorrow.”

“Even if I see a Halfman tomorrow, I don’t think he will press me nearly as hard as you do, Blade Meister.”

Grimbor’s eyes became hard. “It’s not Halfmen I be thinkin’ of. Fer a youngin, ye have many enemies, and to my way of thinkin’, Halfmen are not the most dangerous of ‘em. Watch yer back and practice yer forms every night when it’s safe to do so. Hmm.” Grimbor lapsed into thought.

After a while he spoke again. “Rokodor, ye be fast, and ye have good instincts,” he said. “But ye spend too much time thinkin’ what to do next, and when ye be thinkin’ ye not be watchin’ the enemy. I be wantin’ ye to use only one form in each of the five categories. Practice those until ye can change from one form to the other without thinkin’. When you have those perfect we be addin’ some more.”

With that, Grimbor rose and clapped Dave on the back. “One more thing, Rokodor, find a safe campsite. The safest be a campsite yer enemies canna find. The second safest be one where ye hear ‘em coming. Be smart! Be safe! Come back to me alive.”


[1] An expression in the Ancient Tongue meaning “May the Creator help me!”

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