Burgeoning tech options of modern publishing – online, audio and print – made possible the Prometheus Award slate of 2021 Best Novel finalists

By Michael Grossberg

The 2021 Prometheus Awards slate of Best Novel finalists, just announced, reflects an interesting first in the four-decade-plus history of the award.

See if you can identify this first – hint: a reflection of a long-term trend in modern publishing – from scanning this list of the finalist novels, their authors and publishers:

Who Can Own the Stars?  by Mackey Chandler (Amazon Kindle)
* Storm between the Starsby Karl K. Gallagher (Kelt Haven Press)
* The War Whisperer, Book 5: The Hook, by Barry B. Longyear (Enchanteds)
* Braintrust: Requiem, by Marc Stiegler (LMBPN Publishing)
* Heaven’s River, by Dennis E. Taylor (An Audible Original, print and ebook editions The Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency)

What should leap out from this list of Prometheus finalists above is the absence of the names of major, long-established and long-dominant print publishers. (To borrow a biblical metaphor, think of this as a triumph of David over Goliath.)

For the first time, all five Prometheus Best Novel finalists were either self-published by the authors (through Amazon or their own small presses) or released by small publishers.

Moreover, several finalists first appeared online or only in an audiobook, before a few weeks or months later becoming available in print as a paperback.

For instance, Taylor’s Heaven’s River began as an Audible-only novel, later becoming available on Kindle, as an Audio CD and MP3 Audio.

At this point, just one finalist (Chander’s Who Can Own the Stars?) is so far still available only online (in the form of a Kindle), but that is likely to change – and could well happen sooner than later, partly because of its awards recognition.

Thanks to the type of innovative technology and burgeoning range of marketplace choices that libertarians and many sf authors tend to celebrate as among the most enjoyable fruits of freedom, the modern era has seen wider and wider availability and accessibility develop for more writers, both online and in print.

Moreover, some of these writers and some of that alternative fiction might never have appeared in print or online a generation ago – which seems like a lifetime ago, before the era of ebooks.

Yet, today’s lower-cost publishing options, in print and online, allow such economical strategies as publishing print-on-demand paperbacks or simply publishing a book online only as a Kindle or Audible version of works that might be too much of a risk (or at least be perceived as too risky and less profitable) for the large mainstream print-oriented publishers.

Today’s enhanced publishing options – what modern libertarian economists understand as the ever-evolving result of the spontaneous order of market entrepreneurship and techno-development, which ironically itself might have seemed like science fiction back in the 1940s or 1950s – are proving especially beneficial for emerging and alternate writers. (Such as perhaps, this year, Chandler, Gallagher, Stiegler and Taylor.)

Yet, this new publishing approach is also a potentially valuable option for well-established authors.

For example, in the 1980s, Barry Longyear became the first writer to win the Hugo, Nebula, and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer all in the same year, while his Enemy Mine series inspired a major-studio 1985 film.

Back then, Longyear didn’t need and may not have imagined the scope and range of possibilities made manifest by today’s vast online-and-in-print publishing universe.

Yet, Longyear chose to take advantage of it to self-publish his biographical series of sf/adventure novels about his heroic protagonist Jerome Track. The ambitious seven-volume series represents the type of epic and higher-risk project of epic fiction that simply might not have been publishable by mainstream presses as recently as the 1990s.

Note, by the way, that in the consensus opinion of this year’s Best Novel finalist judges (all volunteer LFS members), Longyear’s The War Whisperer Book 5, The Hoo – as well as other 2021 finalists that are part of a larger series – are each readable on their own, without needing to have read the preceding or following novels in the series.

Today’s publishing landscape is very different from the 1980s, the first decade of the Prometheus Awards, first presented in 1979.

Back then, and into the 1990s, our award nominees and finalists were almost exclusively released by well-known publishers – storied names like TOR, Baen, Ballantine, Del Ray, Ace, Doubleday, Dutton, Penguin, etc.

The first time that a non-print novel was nominated and won the Prometheus for Best Novel was in 1997, when Victor Koman won for Kings of the High Frontier, one of the early published-online-only novels.

That was newsworthy and striking then, but increasingly as the Internet and online realms have become ubiquitous and more widely embraced, the Prometheus Awards (like the Hugos, the Nebulas and other literary/sf awards) have more and more welcomed nominees that first appear online, and sometimes don’t appear in print for quite a while afterwards, or never.

Of course, this new landscape also presents challenges to LFS members, who have the right to nominate eligible fiction for all categories of the Prometheus Award but who now, more than ever, have a far wider field of published fiction to explore in hopes of uncovering and identifying a few libertarian sf gems or nuggets.

It’s so easy for worthy fiction to be overlooked, given how much more is published these days. But that’s what makes our diligent ongoing and annual search worthwhile for outstanding pro-freedom sf and fantasy.

P.S. Here, from the LFS press release are capsule descriptions of the five Best Novel finalists, all published in 2020 and listed in alphabetical order by author:

  • Who Can Own the Stars? by Mackey Chandler (Amazon Kindle): Emancipation is the overall unifying theme in this story, part of a series about a human future in space. The multiple plotlines and large cast of interesting characters incorporate emancipation of children from their parents (many principal characters are minors emancipated formally, in space, or de facto, on Earth) and of space colonists from the governments of Earth – an analogy that helped inspire the American revolution. The central focus of this novel, the latest in Chandler’s April series, is the colonists’ efforts to limit American military presence in space, both as a proven threat to their own rights and as a risk of provoking war if they venture beyond the solar system.
  • Storm between the Stars, by Karl K. Gallagher (Kelt Haven Press): The first volume of Gallagher’s Fall of the Censor series explores a vast interstellar polity’s use of narrative control and memory-holing to cement power. Merchants in a ship from an isolated group of solar systems discover a new hyperspatial route to regain long-lost contact with the rest of humanity. They must deal with a centralized human empire founded on a fictitious history while establishing trade relations with businesses that operate through family ties and underground barter. Gallagher offers a timely cautionary tale about official truth, censorship, and the denial of history, while exploring strategies for economic survival and the pursuit of knowledge under a repressive government.
  • The War Whisperer, Book 5: The Hook, by Barry B. Longyear (Enchanteds): In one of the rare novels to imagine a fully libertarian society and attempt to do so realistically, Longyear depicts a near future in which the Mexican government’s bungled response to a devastating Category 5 hurricane prompts the people of the border state of Tamaulipas to secede, declaring themselves an anarcho-libertarian freeland. The protagonist, Jerome Track, must first decide whether the freeland is worth his commitment, and then develop an innovative strategy for its defense. In the fifth book of Track’s autobiography, Longyear grapples with how a society that refuses to use coercion against its people can defend itself against military aggression, developing an intriguing and plausible solution.
  • Braintrust: Requiem, by Marc Stiegler (LMBPN Publishing): A Great-Depression-scale crash of the world economy sparks an unholy alliance between socialist and fascist governments and their attack via three overwhelming fleets against a community of liberty-loving, tech-savvy seastead citizens in this adventurous, high-spirited, fast-paced and funny saga, the culminating fifth novel within the explicitly libertarian Braintrust Universe series. The struggle to preserve continued freedom and independence of the archipelago – with its highly innovative biotech, materials science, power generation and life-saving genetic engineering – is the central focus of the suspenseful and terrifying but also lighthearted finale, a fast-paced sequel to Stiegler’s previous Prometheus-nominated Braintrust novels (Ode to Defiance, Crescendo of Fire and Rhapsody for the Tempest.)
  • Heaven’s River, by Dennis E. Taylor (Amazon): Set in a future where the uploaded consciousness of a single programmer named Bob has changed, developed and drifted among 24 generations of replicants spreading through the galaxy as a non-coercive collective, Book 4 in the Bobiverse offers a new beginning beyond the original trilogy. The complex, far-flung and humorous saga alternates between an early Bob’s interstellar search for a long-lost replicant named Bender, sparking the discovery of an alien civilization and growing threats of civil war sparked by a younger generation of self-styled Starfleet fans who embrace a radical view of the Prime Directive. The novel raises questions about voluntarism, coercion, the freedom to disagree, and how cooperation can provide innovative and non-aggressive solutions to problems..

    Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings,the 2009 inductee into the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans, and help nominate, judge and vote for the annual Prometheus Award winners. Libertarian futurists believe upholding and advancing culture is even more important, in the long run, than politics in spreading positive visions of the future, achieving a flourishing society based on cooperation instead of coercion and a better, free-er world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

2 thoughts on “Burgeoning tech options of modern publishing – online, audio and print – made possible the Prometheus Award slate of 2021 Best Novel finalists”

  1. My novels exist because of those new options. Before Kindles, I’d limited my writing to blogging and gaming articles–things I could put out to a readership. I’d seen too many stories of authors who’d had their hearts broken by the publishing industry to want to play that game. When I realized I could write stories and send them to readers without a gantlet of agents, editors, publishers, and distributors, I started my first novel.

    1. Glad these new options made possible your novels, Karl!
      It seems to me that history shows, quite often, that freedom and progress are deeply linked. That’s because “free markets and free minds” tend to enhance the discovery process of innovation and invention, which often lowers costs and barriers to entry.

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