Thursday, January 16, 2014

Guest Post: “How Did I Come To Write ‘What Makes This Book So Great?’” by Jo Walton

WaltonJ-WhatMakesThisBookSoGreatJo Walton is a prolific writer and reviewer of speculative fiction and more. One of her newest titles is a collection of essays, adapted from her work for, What Makes This Book So Great? Here, Walton addresses how the book came about.


The answer to the question “How did I come to write this book?” is that I didn’t. I never wrote it. I wrote a series of blog posts for – hundreds and hundreds of them. In all of them I was burbling about books and the way people read. My brief on the blog is to say interesting things about books nobody else has thought about for ages. I read very fast, and I do re-read a lot. I read new things too, but I also enjoy re-reading – and the first thing I ever wrote for was the first essay in the book about why I like to re-read. So I re-read old favourites and shared my enthusiasm about them, and along the way I examined some questions about what happens when you re-read a book and don’t enjoy it any more, and the question of why people love reading series. It was exciting to be able to draw people’s attention to books I love that seem neglected or under-rated, like Karl Schroeder’s Lady of Mazes and Terri Windling’s The Wood Wife. I had a lot of fun writing the posts and starting conversations.


But all this was blogging, not writing a book. I didn’t think of the posts as the kind of thing that could be published in book form until Patrick Nielsen Hayden suggested that they could be. He and Teresa Nielsen Hayden came up to Montreal for a weekend and the three of us sat down together with a huge pile of printout of all my posts to select a representative and interesting sample to make into a book. We made a lot of selection decisions and also decided to keep the posts chronological, instead of organizing them by some other principle. Doing that selection was hard work but also a lot of fun. So I feel as if I wrote the posts and then assembled the book, but not that I really wrote the book, certainly not in the way I write fiction.

This isn’t a book of reviews – reviews are immediate reactions to new books, and by the nature of things a reviewer is going to feel negative about some of what they’re given to review. These are not first thoughts on books but second thoughts, thoughts after reflection. But I’ve also been a little disconcerted at people referring to it as a book of criticism. I don’t feel as if it’s that at all. Criticism is the kind of thing Gary Wolfe and Farah Mendlesohn and John Clute do – you have to be trained to do criticism. There are people writing wonderful SF criticism these days. It’s part of an academic conversation. This book is much more part of a fannish conversation. My qualification for writing these posts isn’t that I write fiction, it’s that I love reading. I’m not considering things objectively. I haven’t read secondary literature. This is a book of my thoughts about books. It’s  saying “This thing, this thing is interesting and important and this is why I love it – and you might love it too!”

Most of the books discussed are SF and fantasy, because I love SF and fantasy, and because that’s the main focus of But I read widely, and so though there are occasional pieces about other things, George Eliot and Dorothy Sayers and so on, but always with a genre sensibility. And despite what it says on the cover, they’re not all classics by any means. This isn’t an attempt at a history of genre fiction or a survey of the highlights or anything of that kind. It is what it says in the title – me explaining what, in my opinion, makes them so great.


What Makes This Books So Great is published today by Corsair Books in the UK. Here’s what Patrick Neilsen Hayden, a senior editor at Tor Books, had to say about the volume’s content, in the announcement on

Included are discussions of books by authors ranging from Vernor Vinge, Robert A. Heinlein, and Jerry Pournelle, to Ursula K. Le Guin, Connie Willis, and Susanna Clarke. Several long series get examined in strings of essays; in particular, Jo re-reads and discusses all of Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Miles Vorkosigan” novels, and all of Steven Brust’s “Vlad Taltos” books, in long multi-part considerations. There are examinations of books you’ve never heard of; there’s at least one essay about a book I’d never heard of. There are insightful and (sometimes) irreverent looks at established classics... and several sharp looks at why and how certain works of the sort that George Orwell called “first-rate second-rate books”... are sometimes exactly what we want to re-read. Taken together, the 130 essays in What Makes This Book So Great are a wonderful immersion in the mind of Jo Walton and a fantastic set of insights into what makes SF and fantasy tick.


In related news, Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy – FARTHING, HA’PENNY, and HALF A CROWN – are to be re-issued in paperback by Corsair in February 2014. Expect reviews of them in the not-too-distant future here on Civilian Reader. In the meantime, here are the synopsis for book one and three new covers…

Eight years after they overthrew Churchill and led Britain into a separate peace with Hitler, the upper-crust families of the “Farthing set” are gathered for a weekend retreat. Among them is estranged Farthing scion Lucy Kahn, who can’t understand why her and her husband David’s presence was so forcefully requested. Then the country-house idyll is interrupted when the eminent Sir James Thirkie is found murdered – with a yellow Star of David pinned to his chest.

Lucy begins to realize that her Jewish husband is about to be framed for the crime – an outcome that would be convenient for altogether too many of the various political machinations underway in Parliament in the coming week. But whoever’s behind the murder, and the frame-up, didn’t reckon on the principal investigator from Scotland Yard being a man with very private reasons for sympathizing with outcasts and underdogs – and prone to look beyond the obvious as a result.

As the trap slowly shuts on Lucy and David, they begin to see a way out – a way fraught with peril in a darkening world.

All three novels are already available as eBooks (and Farthing is at a real bargain-price on Amazon, at the time of writing).



  1. After doing a lot of research, I found out that the UK edition of this book was the true 1st. ed. It preceded the American edition by a few days. I had to go on EBAY to aquire a copy of the UK book. This cost about the same as the American edition. This is understandable, as Ho Walton is English and lives in the UK

    A similar situation arose over trying to purchase The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley. I found out that the first edition was a signed, limited, edition issued by Pan Macmmillan, the British aem of TOR. This is very confusing, considering that Btian Staveley is an American author, living in Vermont. I'm trying to find a The UK signed edition on the aftermarket, but it's expensive.

    I feel that the publisher is doing a great disservice to book collectors by not using their PR to inform more people.

    I would like an answer from the publisher!

    1. Quite often UK and US publishers under the same parent company operate as separate companies - with their own publicity teams, etc. Also, just because an author is American does not mean his/her novel will be automatically available in the US. It all depends on when/if the book is bought for publication. Unless it's a World English Deal, there can often be quite a gap between UK/US publication and the other.

      Also, very rarely are signed editions anything to do with the publisher, unless it is released as a Limited/Special edition. If it's just a first edition that has been signed, it has nothing to do with them. Especially if it's being sold via eBay.

      It's also worth pointing out that the UK and US have different release days - Tuesday in the US and Thursday in the UK (if I remember correctly), so it's not inconceivable that there will be a slight difference between the two release dates, even if it's meant to be a worldwide release.

      Also, Jo Walton is Welsh and lives in Canada. She is not English.

    2. And, if you want an answer from the publisher... Contact the publisher.

    3. "I would like an answer from the publisher!"

      Well, I work for one of the several publishers you discuss in this post. What I can't discern is what your question is.

      Another commenter has noted to you that "Jo Walton is English and lives in the UK" is wrong in both its particulars. I would further note that an author's nationality doesn't determine whether they wind up being published first--or primarily--in the US or the UK. Jo Walton is a British writer who was first published by Tor in New York; she has only recently acquired a UK publisher (Constable & Robinson, an independent trade publisher in London), after more than ten years without one, and Tor US is still her primary publisher.

      For an example going in the other direction, Scott Lynch is an American writer whose work was first discovered and acquired by Gollancz, a distinguished British publisher, and although Gollancz then sublicensed his work to Bantam US for American publication, Gollancz are still his primary publisher, and Gollancz employee Simon Spanton his first editor.

      Elsewhere in your comment, discussing THE EMPEROR'S BLADES by Brian Staveley, you state that "the first edition was a signed, limited edition issued by Pan Macmillan, the British arm of Tor." As far as I can tell, this is wrong. First, if you really want to fuss over tiny differences in the official release dates of US and UK editions, the Tor US hardcover preceded the Tor UK hardcover by two days. Second, as far as I can tell--and I'm open to being corrected about this--the signed-and-numbered "limited edition" of the UK hardcover, offered on eBay and on a specialty bookseller's web site, is just a hundred copies of the normal UK hardcover that have been signed and numbered by the author, possibly with an extra page tipped in. I don't see any evidence that this was produced by Tor UK as a separately-catalogued limited edition. Had it been a truly separate edition _from the publisher_, it would have needed a different ISBN. Simply signing a bunch of copies of a hardcover doesn't make them a "limited edition." (Of course, just as surely, there's nothing wrong with signing a bunch of copies of a hardcover, or selling those signed copies, or being a collector who collects such things.)

      It's also not really correct to call Pan Macmillan "the British arm of Tor." One imprint of Pan Macmillan, Tor UK, has a kind of affiliate relationship with Tor Books in New York. They use the Tor logo with our permission, but we publish different lists, befitting our different markets. We do sometimes acquire one another's books, or even acquire world rights jointly, and we expect to be working together more closely as English-language publishing becomes more global. But while it's flattering to see their parent organization described as our subsidiary, the description is inaccurate. What's true is that we're all part of the same worldwide Macmillan organization.

      Finally, as to PR, I'm not sure exactly what you think we or anyone else should be doing better. From where I sit, it looks like there isn't a fantasy debut this season which we've publicized more than Brian Staveley's, and it seems from here that our Tor UK colleagues have made just as much of a fuss about it. If your main issue is finding out the official release dates of forthcoming hardcovers in the US and the UK, why on earth do you have to do "a lot of research", as opposed to just using Amazon and Google like everyone else? None of this information is remotely difficult to find. So I end this comment just as puzzled as I began it over what kind of "answer from the publisher!" you're demanding.

    4. Thanks for stopping by, Patrick, and offering a response despite Anonymous's unclear question.
      Always nice when publishers/editors stop by. :)

  2. I don't know about Ho Walton, but as far as I know, Jo Walton lives in Montreal, in Canada.