Traditional Publishing vs Self Publishing vs the Crooks


I have been meaning to write a post about this since the beginning of this blog – there’s a fair a bit of information floating around out there, some of it good, some of it not so good, and, well, as a published author I am relatively well-qualified to comment. The book publishing industry can be a bizarre and scary place.

It also goes without saying that the traditional/self-publishing debate only applies to novels. The market works entirely different for short stories – I’ll talk about them later.

(1) Traditional Publishing

Definition: You sell the rights to your book to someone else. They organise the cover, the editing, distribution, et cetera, then they try and sell sufficient copies to get a return on their investment. You get a cut on each book sold (royalties).

(1)(a) The Big Five

This is what most people think of when you utter the words “traditional publishing.” – you sell your work to one of the Big Five publishing companies (yes, there are only five such companies in the English-speaking world – they just hide it behind imprints/subsidiaries). The five in question are Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster, and as a fun fact, only Penguin Random House still has a branch office in New Zealand.


+ Distribution. These places have the clout to get you into bookshops.

+ Prominence. Ultimately, if you want to be a big-name author, with a sizeable audience, you have to go via the Big Five.

+ Advances. Traditional publishing gives you a cut per book sold – but the Big Five are big enough to actually pay you advances – a lump sum representing “royalities in advance” (you don’t get extra royalties on top of that until the book has sold enough to earn out the advance). Advances can get pretty big.

+ They take care of everything. Editing, cover, and marketing – they’ll do it. All you do is write.


-Agents. Because of the sheer quantity of material that comes through the pipe-line, the Big Five rarely accept submissions directly. Instead, they will only accept submissions via industry middle men (agents). This means you have to hunt for an agent who can then hunt for a publisher – and getting an agent isn’t easy. Assuming you can get one, agents will get a share of the profits, but only if the book sells.

-Query letters. Agents (and publishers) don’t have time to read your entire manuscript. So you send them a one page query letter about your book (and potentially the first couple of chapters). Problem is, writing a book is a very different skill from writing a query letter.

-Rejections. Between writing query letters to agents, in the hope that one will take you on, and then hoping the agent can find a home for your manuscript, getting published via the Big Five is not easy.

-The corporate machine. You may be the author, but you’re just a cog in a very large, and very uncaring machine. Remember what I mentioned about the Big Five taking care of everything? Well, they do – which means you have no say over things like your book cover, and unless your name is Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, they’re the ones with the power in this relationship, not you.

(1)(b) Small presses

Small presses invariably get ignored in the debate about traditional publishing and self-publishing, but they do exist (my publisher is one of these). Literally defined as any publisher that isn’t part of the Big Five oligopoly, small presses themselves can vary dramatically in size, but they still operate according to the business model of traditional publishing.


+ Like the Big Five, they’ll take care of editing, cover, and book production, without you having to pay anything. Even if the book sells zero copies, it’s their money on the line, not yours.

+ They (obviously) lack the marketing and distribution clout of the Big Five, but chances are, they still have access to more avenues than you do by yourself. A small press that has been around a while (do your research!) has a business model that allows it to survive in a very tough industry.

+ They’re more likely to treat you like a human being. Absent the corporate machine, you have a much greater chance of having input into things like the cover.

+ They generally allow agent-less submissions, so you can submit to them directly.


-They lack the distributive power of the Big Five. Getting your book into brick-and-mortar shops can be tough.

-Without the Big Five’s marketing budgets, you are expected to do a decent amount of promotional leg-work yourself.

-Like their larger brethren, they will still take a majority of profits on the book to recoup their investment – small-press publishing may be less risky than self-publishing, but (potentially) it is also less lucrative.

-There are plenty of crooks (see below) passing themselves off as small presses. Do your research.

(2) Self-publishing

Definition: You organise all aspects of the book – editing, cover, marketing – fund it yourself, take all the risk, and hope that you can sell enough to recoup your investment. In the modern era, this often takes the form of uploading your book to Amazon.


+ Without having to deal with a publisher or agent, you get to keep a much greater share of any profits. If you have a pre-existing audience, this means that self-publishing can be very lucrative if done right.

+ Length becomes less important. Traditional publishers will generally require you to submit a work of a particular length (60,000-110,000 words, depending on genre). Self-publishing allows you to go over or under that – which is very useful if you have a 25,000 word novella, which is too long for a magazine, and too short for traditional publication.

+ You can put out specialist works that aren’t intended for a mass audience (this assumes you know what you’re getting into).

+The book you worked so hard on is published. It may or may not be a financial success, but it is out there, available for anyone to read – and that in itself might be enough for you, depending on your goals.


-The financial risk is all yours. If no-one buys your book (and most self-published books will struggle to get into triple digits in sales), then it is you – not a publisher – who is out of pocket. You can skimp on the editing and cover – but then why would anyone want to buy your book?

-The stigma. In the absence of any form of gate-keeping or editorial oversight, there is the danger that no-one will take your book seriously – and for understandable reasons. Why should someone spend their hard-earned money on some unknown person’s self-published work, when it might be full of typos and self-indulgent waffle?

-Having complete control of the content is not as awesome as you think. Editors exist for a reason.

-You are on your own as far as distribution goes. Even a small press will probably have access to more avenues than you if you are starting from scratch.

(3) The Crooks

Yes, they exist – and they are just waiting to take advantage of you, so Do Your Research. I strongly recommend checking out the forum here. I would also add that any publisher or agent who is resorting to online advertisements to promote themselves is very likely a crook.

(3)(a) Vanity Publishers

Definition: They will publish you if you pay them.

Remember that the definition of traditional publishing is that the firm will buy the rights to your work, take the risk on itself, and hope to sell enough copies to recoup their investment. With vanity publishing, the publisher has no incentive to sell anything at all, since they have already made their money off you – and as they don’t have to sell anything, they have no interest in editing your work, which means no-one is going to buy it.

The golden rule here is that money flows towards the author. If a publisher is asking you to fund any part of the publication – editing, cover, any “fees”, then you are dealing with a vanity press, and need to run away. Fast. If you feel tempted by their promises, run even faster. You’re better off self-publishing, where at least you retain complete control of the situation.

(3)(b) Dodgy Agents

As mentioned above, the job of agents is to find a (generally major) publisher for you, to open doors you can’t open yourself. Agents will only take a cut of the profits if the book sells – if the book doesn’t sell, they don’t make any money.

Dodgy agents are people who will promise to represent you if you pay them upfront (either via a “reading fee”, or some other sneaky method). Like vanity publishers, they then have already made their money off you, and as such have no incentive to actually do their job. Or perhaps they will find you a publisher – the vanity one owned by their cousin, or even themselves.

Again – research before signing anything.

(3)(c) Author Mills

These bastards have a supremely sneaky business model. They work with the assumption that any book will sell five copies, regardless of how bad it is (family and friends and all that), hike their prices, and then sign up two hundred authors.

Again, they have no incentive to edit or produce a decent book, since they know Bob Smith is going to buy his mother’s romance novel regardless – and it doesn’t matter to them that no-one else will buy the book.

A thing to look for is if an alleged small press seems to be putting out a gigantic number of books in a short space of time. If so, beware.

(4) Short stories and Poetry

All I have said thus far pertains to novels. The short story and poetry markets are entirely different beasts altogether.

(4)(a) Magazines

Magazines, either paper or electronic, will be your major port of call here. Just look up a convenient database like The Submission Grinder, find a magazine that caters to your variety of work, and send it off, no agent required (again, it goes without saying that you have to avoid pay-to-publish markets). Just be prepared for lots of rejections from the top magazines – getting a novel published is actually easier than selling short stories to those sorts of places.

Magazines don’t pay royalties. You are either paid a flat fee or on a per-word basis.

(4)(b) Collections

You can try querying short story collections to agents and publishers (so long as they actually specify that they’re open to that sort of thing – don’t forget to read their submission guidelines). This will probably go better if you have already sold lots of stories to magazines.

Don’t query poetry collections. Unless you are a famed Poet Laureate, there is no market for them – and any agent or publisher who expresses interest will invariably be a crook. If you want to publish a poetry collection, go for self-publishing instead.

I am scratching the surface with this overview of the publishing industry, but I hope it at least gives you a general idea of what to expect.


Of Smoke Rings and Authorial Responsibility

Patrick Rothfuss, author of the Kingkiller Chronicles, has done a live-streamed Q & A. I thought I would address the genuinely interesting question Rothfuss raises between minute 47 and minute 55 of the linked Q & A – the degree to which authors (and creators of art generally) have a responsibility not to “poison the minds” of their audience with bad ideas and unfortunate implications. Case in point, Tolkien’s portrayal of tobacco smoking (which Rothfuss gets to around minute 52).

To be fair to Rothfuss, the format of a Q & A does not lend itself to working through the complexities of this question – and it is a complex question. At one extreme you have the notion that works of art ought to promote only wholesome messages and ideas – which is, to say, moral censorship, either of the self-limiting variety, or in some officially sanctioned form, a la the Hays Code. While I am not going to accuse Rothfuss of subscribing to this sort of extreme position, I would hope that he recognises the danger of being “too” obsessed with authorial responsibility – stunted, dull art that refuses to push social boundaries, or at least situations where a creator is so afraid of criticism that they overcompensate with blandness. Then there are the subsidiary questions – who gets to decide if something is a bad idea or an unfortunate implication? Why must we necessarily conflate portrayal with advocacy? To what extent must a creator engage in Do Not Do This Cool Thing?

That said, Rothfuss does have a point – the other extreme has its problems too, even if (in my opinion), these are lesser problems than censorship. A situation where authors don’t at least think about the message they are pushing (and every story has a message, even a sub-conscious one) is a recipe for misunderstanding at best, and stirring up dangerous stuff at worst. One can portray controversial or negative material without glamorising it – indeed, I would argue that dealing with “damaged” characters in a way that allows us to understand them as people, without necessarily sympathising, is a key part of a writer’s job description. Stephen Donaldson explores Thomas Covenant as a guilt-ridden rapist without making Covenant’s crime “cool”. But what of stories where exploring the glamour of the dark side is actually part of the exercise?


Stanley Kubrik famously ran into this problem when copycat violence (with associated “Singin’ in the Rain”) became an issue in the aftermath of A Clockwork Orange. Kubrik in response argued

“To try and fasten any responsibility on art as the cause of life seems to me to put the case the wrong way around. Art consists of reshaping life, but it does not create life, nor cause life.”

Kubrik is broadly correct here. His film was not forcing reprehensible twits to go out and commit rape and violence. The fault can only ever lie with the perpetrators. But if a work of art feeds into pre-existing dark impulses in the human brain, I think we as creators need to at least be aware of what we are doing: books, films, et cetera, are a dialogue between creator and audience, so when the subject matter is sensitive, one ought to say what one means to say. As I have noted above, the constraints of a Q & A session aren’t helpful for Rothfuss to discuss this in detail, but I prefer to read his comments as a call for thought, rather than a call for self-censorship.

But what of Tolkien’s smoke-rings? What to make of Rothfuss’ insinuation that the “fun” portrayal of tobacco in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings makes Tolkien (indirectly) culpable for cancer?

The glib answer is to ask if The Hobbit promotes smoking, why then is Rothfuss himself reading the book to his three year-old son? If The Hobbit is so tricksy, ought Rothfuss to have waited until the son was of an age to understand that smoking is harmful – and if so, does this mean that parents like Rothfuss cause cancer as much as Tolkien? To be slightly less glib, there is also a reason for age limits on tobacco purchases. Rothfuss’ son may be fascinated by smoking at age three – there is no reason to think he will retain the same fascination at age eighteen, and an eighteen year-old’s decision to start smoking is much more likely to be influenced by social norms (and peer pressure) than his childhood reading material. Not to mention that, as Tolkien prefers the term “pipe-weed”, you might as well argue that The Lord of the Rings (inadvertently) promotes marijuana use, rather than cigarettes.

In truth though, I rather feel that Rothfuss is using a poor example for his thesis. Arguing that authors have a responsibility not to perpetuate harmful ideas is all well and good, but at the time Tolkien was writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, there was comparatively little understanding of the health-effects of tobacco (my maternal grandmother was told by her doctor to take up smoking in the 1960s). As far as Tolkien himself was concerned, pipe-smoking was completely benign, and he had no way of knowing better – how, then, could he have known he was spreading a “bad idea”? Moreover, if one really wants to go after Tolkien for his portrayal of smoking, I would point out that he only ever writes it as a “fun” reflection of our mundane world creeping into fantasy. The Everyman Hobbits smoke, and those who have contact with them, like Aragorn, Gandalf, and the dwarves, smoke – but the more alien figures, the Elves, the Gondorians, or the Rohirrim, do not. Tolkien does not do what many films of his era did, and make smoking out-and-out glamorous or sexy – which, given the age limit on tobacco purchases, is a far more pertinent concern.

Ultimately, while I understand Rothfuss’ bemused concern at his three year-old finding smoking fun via Tolkien, I do not think this is really a matter of authorial responsibility. In an age where we now understand the health issues associated with tobacco, the social environment that once glamorised it has gone, and parents and guardians are much better equipped to cut the habit off at the pass. Tolkien’s treatment of the subject may have been a (very small) contribution to the more smoker-friendly environment of yesteryear, a drop in a dangerous contextual bucket, but it was a product of its time, produced by a man who didn’t know any better. We do, and, thankfully, no twenty-first century author is going to write smoke rings the way Tolkien did.

2018 Not a Reading Challenge – January

My completed reads for January:

  • Jirel of Joiry, by C.L. Moore
  • Northwest of Earth, by C.L. Moore

Not a great start to 2018, but then it has been too hot to think at times, let alone read. Seriously: January 2018 is breaking all sorts of New Zealand weather records:


Canterbury Faire – and a Poem

One of my little annual rituals is driving five and a half hours from Dunedin to Amberley for Canterbury Faire – a week-long SCA event that is the largest of its kind in New Zealand (aka the Crescent Isles). Although my involvement in the SCA is less active than it used to be, largely on account of the medieval re-enactment scene being quiet in Dunedin, I still generally attend Faire. 2018 was my tenth visit since 2007 (in that time I have only missed 2014 and 2017).

As I note on my SCA page, my major interest within the group is medieval-style poetry. In the case of Faire, I am also one of the usual suspects making endless amounts of Turkish Coffee at the makeshift tavern – though this was the first Faire when I didn’t drink out my coffee subscription. Why? Simple – with Amberley sweltering in 30 degrees Celsius and above for days, it was simply too damn hot. I spent most of last week sheltering from the the hammer-blows of the sun, and drinking copious amounts of water (and reading books while I was at it – no internet, remember?).

I also composed a piece of occasional skaldic verse, in dróttkvætt metre – as applied to English. Traditional skaldic verse, as opposed to the more loose alliterative verse of the Eddas (or Beowulf) is a straitjacket of a poetic form, which the Norsemen themselves actually compared to shipbuilding – it is that engineered. Personally, I find attempting it an interesting challenge, even though the result doesn’t really comply with what we would think of as good poetry today.


Bright the end of brand so
Brave for one who craves the
Fame of future times and
Fears not furnace tearful;
Learning things of thorns and
Thistles grasped with fists of
Steel, the stern blaze calls for
Stronger hearts, ye song smiths.

The piece was inspired by  a fellow attendee’s sketch art. No prizes for spotting the weather puns.

Oh, and as a footnote, this form of skaldic verse does actually appear in Wise Phuul – it is the poem delivered by the Chancellor at the anniversary banquet. The only other time I have encountered an attempt of the form in a fantasy novel is in The Broken Sword, by Poul Anderson (1954).

Ursula Le Guin dies

I have only just got back from a week-long holiday with no access to the internet (more on that in a subsequent post), so I have only now heard of Ursula Le Guin’s death.


We have lost a monumental figure within the genre – to the extent that she’d be one of my choices for a hypothetical Mount Rushmore of science-fiction. Le Guin was significant not just because of her own output, but also because, more than nearly any other modern commentator on speculative fiction, she sought to give the field intellectual legitimacy. Her 1974 essay Why Are Americans Afraid Of Dragons? represents an elaboration on C.S. Lewis’ old idea that some people are a little too obsessed with being grown up – but it does more than that. It is an invocation of fantasy as a counter-culture, a surviving celebration of the imagination in an age of sterile realism. Fantasy is far more mainstream in 2018 than 1974, but I think there are still lessons to be learned here, especially by those obsessed with praising allegedly realistic fantasy, a la Game of Thrones, as though realism in itself is a virtue (George R.R. Martin himself is not a realist, of course – I am talking about some of his more wrongheaded followers). Fantasy, by definition, is a genre of the imagination, and if Le Guin’s essay is a bit out of date, it is only because the money men have moved on from being afraid of dragons to trying to tame them for circuses.

Le Guin’s work also strikes at the heart of the (alas, still widely held) notion that speculative fiction is not “literary”, that it is mere escapism with no relevance to the human condition. The Left Hand of Darkness, a thought experiment of variable sex and gender roles, truly puts pay to that, and in an age when transgender issues are becoming ever-more prominent, it is clear that Le Guin’s novel ought to be considered a literary work ahead of its time. Just because something is science-fiction does not mean it has nothing to say – and what short-sighted academic snobbery misses can still resonate with the unwashed masses.

In a perfect world, Le Guin ought to have got the Nobel Prize for Literature – but we don’t live in a perfect world. We can still fall back on imagination though.


D&D Campaign All Finished

After nearly a year, my D&D group’s campaign has finally come to an end. Our DM decided to bump us up three levels prior to dealing with the final boss, so here is what Ivor ended up as

  • Level: 10
  • Alignment: Neutral Evil
  • Class: Bard (9)/ Warlock (1)


  • Cantrips: Friends, Minor Illusion, Vicious Mockery, Eldritch Blast*, Chill Touch
  • 1st Level: Faerie Fire, Unseen Servant, Dissonant Whispers, Healing Word, Hex, Inflict Wounds [Magical Secrets] [Dropped – Heroism, Sleep, Tasha’s Hideous Laughter]
  • 2nd Level: Invisibility, Suggestion, Silence
  • 3rd Level: Hypnotic Pattern, Major Image, Animate Dead [Magical Secrets]
  • 4th Level: Dimension Door, Greater Invisibility
  • 5th Level: Animate Objects

*Treated as 1st Level


  • Strength: 12
  • Dexterity: 15
  • Constitution: 15
  • Intelligence: 10
  • Wisdom: 10
  • Charisma: 20 (incl +1 Boots of Charisma)

Despite the level boost, Ivor didn’t actually do any damage in the final battle. The campaign now over, he gets to go and enjoy being filthy rich.

I also have ideas and backstory for my next character. We’ll see how that goes.

January Writing Update

January has got off to a good start in the writing department – I have finished off a 3300-word science-fiction piece, entitled Prison for One. I’ve never written Space Opera before, so this was something new – though thematically it’s very non-Space Opera-ish. In some ways, I think it is quite similar to The Happiest Man Alive, albeit with less overt horror. Oh, and there was loose inspiration, including the title, from the famous (in continental Europe) vaudeville skit, Dinner for One:

Meanwhile, my Catholic vampire story (Pulmenti Gloriosum Pulmenti) continues to get rejected. And, yes, I do mean to return to work on Old Phuul this year too.

Awards Eligibility Post – 2017

Seeing as a number of authors have Award Eligibility Posts around this time of year (I did it back in 2016 too), I figured I ought to identify my 2017 work, on the off-chance someone wants to nominate it for something:

Flash Fiction: 

Short Story:


In Soviet Russia Deck Shuffles You (Part I)

I have mentioned before that I have an interest in alternate history – taking what-ifs, and running with them (hence my previous look at a world where Tolkien lived to be a hundred). Today, in light of my recent play-throughs of Crisis in the Kremlin, I thought I would dig up one of my more tongue-in-cheek alternate history pieces, one on the General Secretaries of the Soviet Union. The idea is that these are the same General Secretaries (and Russian Presidents) as in real-life, just in a different order, and with markedly different personalities and legacies. Be prepared for copious amounts of silliness.

(Note – the first leader in the list sticks rather closely to real-life, but that is simply set-up for what comes after).



The General Secretaries of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union since 1917.​

1. Nikita Khrushchev​
 The Young Man Who Shook the World

It is impossible to think of the twentieth century without the name Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. The history of revolutionary socialism, stretching back to Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and their antecedents, had hitherto been one of abstract theory: the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, stillborn in the Paris Commune, remained tragically out of reach for European revolutionaries. It took a Ukrainan peasant boy and his friend to overturn that convention, and bring the dream of Communism to the huddled masses of the world. Today, nearly one in three human beings lives under a Government directly descended from the regime established by Khrushchev and Kaganovich in those heady months of 1917: a historical legacy of global influence unrivalled since Islam in its first century, and a feat comparable with Alexander the Great himself. For it should never be forgotten that Khrushchev attained power at a mere 23 years of age, and that the other member of that early Communist duumverate, Lazar Kaganovich, was less than a year older. And unlike Alexander, Khrushchev was not born into greatness, but rather rose from the barest poverty of the rural Ukraine. Small wonder, then, that his homeland has affixed his name to everything from cities to lakes, to schools.

Khrushchev was born in 1894, in Kalinovka, and first became acquainted with Marxism through the brother of his parochial school teacher Lydia Shevchenko. While his poor peasant parents could not afford to give him a more elaborate education, the young man devoured the Communist Manifesto and other political texts. He tried, and largely failed, to seek out other like-minded idealists, but was thwarted by both limited opportunities (he spent much of his day as a herdsman), and by the well-founded family fear of the Imperial Government. When his family moved to the city of Yuzovka, however, he found himself an apprenticeship as a metal fitter, and an opportunity for underground political activism in what was then one of the great industrial heartlands of the Empire. It was also there he met the man who would be his lifelong friend and colleague, Lazar Kaganovich.

Khrushchev and Kaganovich were united by the common conviction that Marx’s theories could be modified to bring about revolution in Imperial Russia. Rather than waiting for capitalism to collapse through its own decadent excesses and internal contradictions, the idea they came up with was that the course of history could be steered: the apparent feudal apparatus of the Empire could, given the correct leadership, jump directly to a socialist model, bypassing bourgeois capitalist development altogether. Via the publication of the underground Pravda newspaper, the idea took the local Social Democrats by storm, even though some of the more traditional Marxists (to say nothing of Bakunin’s anarchists) remained deeply sceptical. During this period, Khrushchev also had his first (minor) run-in with the Tsarist Secret Police, when the regime sought to break a local strike. Khrushchev modified his ideas accordingly: socialism could not triumph by being law abiding and respectful when its opponents were willing and able to use extensive oppression. As he would later say, “if you start throwing hedgehogs under me, I shall throw a couple of porcupines under you.”

The collapse of the Tsarist regime in the February Revolution gave Khrushchev and Kaganovich the opening they sought. Even as Alexander Kerensky set up his fragile Provisional Government in Petrograd (formerly St Petersburg), the twain were already seeking to rally the support of workers and peasants for a New Order: as young as they were, they promised anew future, free from the shackles of Russia’s despotic past. A particular sore point was the Kerensky Government’s determination to continue the war against Germany – Khrushchev, who had narrowly escaped conscription by virtue of his skilled labour status, made a point in every speech of advocating peace. Meanwhile, he and his friend set about organising Worker Governments (‘Soviets’) in as many cities as they could, in preparation for the day the Proletariat would take control of their own destiny. They also worked closely with the agrarian Social Revolutionaries, pointing out that the peasants and workers shared a common enemy. Before long, the two movements had merged into a populist and somewhat incoherent general protest organisation, with Khrushchev appealing to the farms as much as he did to the factories.

Then in October 1917 (November under the Gregorian calendar) discontent with the Kerensky regime had reached fever pitch. Amid strikes and industrial chaos, and risings in the countryside, Nikita Khrushchev proclaimed the establishment of a new, revolutionary, Russia. Several years later, the country with its diverse nationalities and cultures would be reorganised as a Union of Soviets, the state still known to us today as the Soviet Union.

But the old order was not prepared to die quietly. While the young men were happy enough to bend to Germany’s grandiose peace demands, they found themselves fighting a new and much more desperate war: a Civil War between themselves (the Reds) and their anti-Communist opponents (the Whites). While Khrushchev as the new General Secretary took care of Communist Party organisation (much of which had to be delegated), and juggled an awkward set of political alliances, Kaganovich sought to muster military forces from both town and country in support of the Revolution. Fortunately, they were able to find able lieutenants, including the likes of Leon Trotsky, who fascinated the young men with his own interpretation of Marxist theory. Despite minor foreign intervention and general devastation, the Reds finally emerged victorious by 1920.

But leading a Revolution is one thing – actually governing is quite another, and attempting to transform the blasted hulk of Imperial Russia into Socialism is another again. Their peasant allies had been alienated by some of the more desperate food confiscations during the Civil War (“our armies must eat!” cried Kaganovich), despite haphazard attempts at belated compensation, while the outside world saw the new regime as a hotbed of international insurrection.

The Soviet Union in its early days placed greater emphasis on the ‘Soviet’ than on the ‘Union’. Day to day policies were decided democratically and locally by councils of workers and peasants, with Khrushchev himself trying, generally unsuccessfully, to bind these diverse units together into a coherent whole. With different cities and localities deciding on their own road to Socialism, the 1920s was as anticlimactic as it was frustrating for the victorious revolutionaries. What is writing and reading reports in comparison to heroically manning the barricades? Some among the upper ranks of the party hierarchy grumbled that there should be a greater degree of cohesion imposed from above, and that Khrushchev and Kaganovich, despite their achievements and ideas, were simply too young to lead.

Finally, in 1930, Khrushchev informed the Communist Party’s ruling committee (the Politburo) that he intended to resign his position as General Secretary. He told them that he felt hurt by the whispering campaign against him, and said that, since older men clearly had greater wisdom than the young, perhaps it was time for a more mature leader.

2. Vladimir Ulyanov
 Russia’s Forgotten Leader

In marked contrast to his illustrious predecessor, you will find few monuments in the Soviet Union dedicated to Vladmir Ilyich Ulyanov. Trapped as he was between the twin glories of the October Revolution and the Great Patriotic War, he presided over little memorable, and if he is remembered at all in modern-day Russia, it is as “the one with the beard and waistcoat”, or even as a sort of Soviet Millard Fillmore, famous for being obscure. While some Western historians have recently begun to reassess his contribution to the Soviet state, he has been the subject of few specialised biographies, and much of what follows is still subject to conjecture. Perhaps it is only inevitable that a dry law lecturer in a suit, on the wrong side of 60 years old, should attract less attention than a 23 year old who captured an Empire.

Ulyanov was born in 1870 to a wealthy middle-class family in Simbirsk, and by all accounts spent a happy childhood, playing chess and excelling at school. A few of his chess games survive, and given the evident level of tactical understanding involved, it has been suggested by at least one historian that the world made a tragic mistake in trading a first-rate chess master for a second-rate politician. Ulyanov followed his brother to Kazan State University, where he pursued a degree in law. His grades, again, suggest an excellent student, but his conventionality was such that when his brother Aleksandr became involved in a radical political group on campus, Vladimir wrote a letter home to his mother about it. Aleksandr was forced to disassociate himself from the group, on pain of having his allowance cut off.

It was during his University years that Ulyanov first encountered the works of Georgi Plekhanov, a leading Russian Marxist. Ulyanov had always been a great reader, being particularly fond of the poetry of Gleb Uspensky, but Plekhanov’s theories about Russia changing from feudalism into capitalism evidently struck a chord. His mother owned a small estate, so Ulyanov spent several summers in the countryside, collecting social data on the peasantry. We only know this, however, because the resulting paper ‘New Economic Developments in Peasant Life’ was published in a liberal journal. Had the journal rejected him, it is likely that this period of his life would be a complete blank.

The First World War found Ulyanov lecturing in law at the University of St Petersburg (soon to be Petrograd). Accounts from his students reveal a man who knew his subject area, but who was also prone to overtly dry analysis. He retained an interest in politics, being a card-carrying member of the Russian Social Democratic Party, though this mixture of radicalism with a respectable middle-class persona was a source of amusement to his colleagues. One of them remarked “Vladimir Ilyich is so revolutionary that when confronted with a Do Not Walk on the Grass sign, he will always keep to the pavement.”

Nevertheless, it was his ability to analyse complex theory and his undoubted organisational skills that pulled him up the hierarchy of the revolutionary state. Intelligent, disciplined, inoffensive, and always willing to settle disputes over a quiet game of chess, he was the sort of hard-working, middle-aged, middle-class underling the new regime needed. He achieved Politburo status in 1924, and in marked contrast to the likes of Trotsky, managed to balance both intellectualism with a conspicuous lack of self aggrandisement. While there were few words of praise from his colleagues, there were even fewer words of criticism, and he never at any point got himself involved in the whispering campaign against Khrushchev. So when Khrushchev unexpectedly resigned in 1930, it was felt that Ulyanov would make a harmless replacement.

It must have therefore come as a surprise when, as the newly installed General Secretary, he proposed overhauling the Soviet system with what he termed a New Economic Policy: a much more centralised state, combined with small-scale private enterprise. The intent was to achieve what Ulyanov considered to be the best of both worlds: a greater sense of political cohesion, combined with a level of local responsiveness and creativity. ‘Market Socialism’, he tried to call it, though his critics immediately condemned him for a throwback to capitalism. Much was made of Ulyanov’s bourgeois background, to the point that the General Secretary felt every bit as victimised as his predecessor. After fruitlessly trying to push his agenda through the leadership for eighteen months, he finally gave up. Nothing had changed, nothing had happened: the system, as he saw it, was unable to be salvaged. Not even the apparent collapse of global capitalism could cheer him up.

In 1932 he resigned from the General Secretary position and returned to academia.

3. Georgy Malenkov​


Beloved Uncle George

If Nikita Khrushchev created the Soviet Union and Real Existing Socialism, Georgy Maximilianovich Malenkov, its longest-serving leader, is the man who defined it. Not only did he save his country during its darkest hour, but he proved once and for all that one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar. The portly, cuddly, multi-chinned Soviet leader was as popular in the West as he was at home, to the extent that it was openly suggested prior to the 1948 US Presidential election that the Constitution be amended to permit Malenkov to run for the American Presidency. Needless to say, had Malenkov been available to stand in foreign elections, he would have run his competition close, such was his affable charm and intelligence. It is easy to imagine some calculating despot seizing the reins after Ulyanov’s short and ill-fated tenure, doing irreparable harm both to the reputation of the Soviet Union and to international Communism; as it was, Communism never has had a better advertisement.

Malenkov was born in Orenburg in 1902, the son of a wealthy farmer. He pursued his studies diligently, except when called out by his father to help sell the harvest. In his spare time, he proved to be an avid reader, and he delighted in the company of others with similar tastes, to the extent that he would often recommend books to people he had barely met. There are several accounts from British diplomats in the 1940s and 1950s, describing how Malenkov defused heated diplomatic incidents through judicious and irreverent literary analysis. His interest in literature and academia brought him into the circle of Vladmir Ulyanov in the early 1920s, and it was Ulyanov who provided Malenkov with both a gateway into politics, and an unexpected opportunity to climb the Soviet ladder. His place in the Politburo was assured in the late 1920s, after an encounter with Khrushchev. The latter appreciated another fresh and youthful voice among a sea of middle-aged faces, and remarked that Malenkov had a knack for language and diplomacy that he himself lacked. Malenkov and the retired Khrushchev remained the best of friends until the latter’s death in 1971.

With the resignation of Ulyanov in 1932, the 30 year old Malenkov seemed a return to the Khrushchev era. But it turned out that Malenkov really did have an unexpected talent for Machiavellian politics hitherto lacking among the Soviet leadership. He curried favour with Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the Soviet internal security service, leading the latter to think that the NKVD would have increased responsibilities under a Malenkov regime. Once Yezhov had been lured into showing Malenkov the paperwork for a proposed general purge, Malenkov promptly had the NKVD chief arrested and removed. This episode is, however, cautionary in that it shows what might have happened under a less scrupulous leader.

In terms of economics, Malenkov realised early on that both the traditional Soviet model and Ulyanov’s proposed N.E.P. were doomed to failure. Cohesion was needed, but neither could a return to capitalism be justified, especially as the forces of bourgeois liberalism appeared in retreat on every front. Malenkov’s plan was to Plan. Replacing the vast array of small localised workers councils with elected regional Soviets, and a Supreme Soviet in Petrograd, he set the representatives to work on concocting multi-year quotas for production. Malenkov used his best diplomatic talents to argue in favour of this model, and set his friends in academia to work in figuring out how to include pricing mechanisms into the system. He did not get everything he wanted, but few could argue that the Malenkov reforms were not a significant improvement on what went before. A much greater emphasis was placed on building up Soviet heavy industry, and providing materials for the Red Army.

It was, however, in the nick of time. The countries bordering the Soviet Union still, as of the 1930s, took a dim view of the intentions of the revolutionary government in Petrograd. Believing that the Red Army was something of a paper tiger, some even made territorial demands of Russia: a small military might still make mincemeat of “peasants with pitchforks” if they had the secret support of Berlin. Malenkov rejected their demands out of hand. He was greeted with a joint invasion of the Soviet Union by a coalition of Poland, Finland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Baltic States, and Nazi Germany. Amid chaotic scenes, Malenkov had no choice but to move the capital back to Moscow.

It was the war years that solidified Malenkov’s reputation in the West. At almost one stroke, the Soviet leader had gone from the piggish monster of Anglo-American propaganda (George Orwell’s Animal Farm being a particularly low blow in this regard, poking fun at Malenkov’s weight) to loveable, cuddly Uncle George. Uncle George, however, always made a point of giving credit to others, especially the ever loyal and ever victorious Commander Zhukov. The Great Patriotic War was tough and brutal, but Malenkov never flinched from urging his people forward to victory. His controversial decision in the late 1930s to ignore calls for a purge of “disloyal” officers probably helped the Soviet cause too.

Malenkov finally retired in 1953, stating that over 20 years in office was enough for anyone. He might have reconsidered his choice within a few years, given the nature of his successor.

4. Ioseb dze Jughashvili
The Red Priest

There has probably never been a leader anywhere quite like Ioseb dze Jughashvili. It remains one of history’s truly unbelievable twists: an elderly Orthodox Patriarch managed to become the General Secretary of a party officially devoted to atheism, and maintain power for a full year, all the while speaking in a near-incomprehensible Georgian accent. What is clear, however, is that the Year of the Priest, as it remains called in the Soviet Union, represented an upsurge of religious fundamentalism unseen in Europe since the height of Martin Luther’s Reformation. His successors would ever after baulk at referencing him by name, and indeed throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, there was an active campaign in suppressing his legacy among the people: his teachings were labelled a heretical mistake, and it was often repeated that the true path to Socialism lay elsewhere. His divisive legacy is even seen among overseas Communist Parties. Having reached their heyday in the early 1950s, under the benevolent influence of Uncle George, the Year of the Priest resulted in panic among secular authorities and the active marginalisation of Western Communists. The first signs of a Sino-Soviet split began to appear during this era too, with the new leadership in Beijing unable to accept the overtly Christian message coming from Moscow.

Ioseb dze Jughashvili was born in 1878 in Gori, Georgia, and was the son of an abusive, alcoholic cobbler. Dze Jughashvili remained close to his devoutly religious mother, who believed him destined for great things; she enrolled him in a religious school over her husband’s objections. In 1894, Ioseb then received a scholarship to attend the Georgian Orthodox Tiflis Spiritual Seminary. He passed his final exams in 1899 with top marks, and accordingly entered the Orthodox Priesthood. Between his ruminations on faith and human existence, he was also an avid reader of (translated) Goethe and Shakespeare, and adored the Georgian epic, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin. He also wrote poetry, some of which has a cult following in the Soviet Union to this day, and it is likely that if dze Jughashvili had not entered the Priesthood, he would have become a novelist or a poet.

The Georgian Orthodox Church re-established its autonomy in the wake of the 1917 Revolution. Admiring his literary bent, and his outspoken defence of the Church, he found favour with the religious authorities, and began to find himself rising up the ranks, becoming a metropolitan bishop in 1930. He was noted as an effective (if somewhat strict) administrator, affectionately nicknamed Bishop Card Index by those under his care. These organisational skills served him well during the war years, where he attracted a enthusiastic and occasionally fanatical following for his powerful speeches. He urged Georgians to work ever harder, to join the Red Army, to supply more textiles and munitions for the great cause. By 1945, he had risen to the top of the Church hierarchy, becoming Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia. Notwithstanding their official commitment to atheism, the local party authorities made a point of consulting him on nearly all day-to-day affairs.

Then, in early 1953, the 74 year old Patriarch experienced a vision, a vision of a nation reborn. With a handful of his loyal followers, he resolved to walk barefoot from Georgia to Moscow, to share his revelations with the leaders in the Kremlin. Along the way, others joined in, until by the time the elderly dze Jughashvili reached his destination, he commanded a multitude, consisting of all ages and all backgrounds. Georgy Malenkov had, only several weeks before, announced his retirement, and there was still no clear leader available on hand to greet the arrivals. Indeed, there was great indecision among the Politburo about what, if anything, should be done about them. Lev Kamenev and Leon Trotsky, elderly hardliners that they were, suggested that the crowds be forcibly dispersed: for was not religion the opium of the people? Kamenev and Trotsky were, however, overruled: the majority insisted that the Soviet Union would always recognise an individual’s right to assemble peacefully.

When news of the vacant leadership reached dze Jughashvili’s followers, they began vocally suggesting that their beloved Patriarch should be appointed to the position. Unthinkable as it was to the more conventional in the party, the Politburo invited him to discuss his vision for the country. Two hours later, he emerged from the meeting, not only having been granted life membership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but having been made its new General Secretary too. Western journalists who were on hand to witness the event wrote excitedly of Moscow’s new Red Priest. The Year of the Priest had begun.

Ioseb dze Jughashvili started off by telling Soviet citizens that the calamities of war and invasion had been a sign from God that He was displeased with the devotion of His people. The people of the Soviet Union, nay Europe, nay the world, would need to be purified of decadence, and return to the simple faith and life of their fathers. More specifically, the teachings of the Church would become the highest law in the land, and the current multi-year plan would immediately switch from building dams and canals to churches and religious schools. Henceforth, every town in the country would have at least one church, though during the Year of the Priest, there was an active competition among regions to see who could erect the greatest number of religious buildings. Dze Jughashvili is reported to have been delighted by this pious competition.

Nor did he neglect more worldly concerns. The Red Army was subjected to compulsory daily prayers as part of their routine. Dze Jughashvili was immensely proud of his country’s military, comparing the clear strength of the Orthodox Church to that of his Catholic counterpart in Rome. “The Pope?” he is said to have remarked, “how many divisions has he got?”

But given the holy nature of Ioseb dze Jughashvili, it was perhaps inevitable that he become a martyr. Not everyone in the Communist Party was happy with their Red Priest, preferring their orthodoxy to be of the lower-case variety. The discontent was fanned by the leader’s trusting-yet-arrogant expectation that everyone would simply do their duty without question, and by the annoyance of subjecting the army to daily prayers. In a country supposedly devoted to the teachings of Marx, it was clearly a reactionary throwback. So it was that a small handful of Politburo members plotted to assassinate the General Secretary: Kamenev, Trotsky, and Lavrentiy Beria. In July 1954, as Ioseb dze Jughashvili sat down to his austere dinner, the three of them waited with prepared weapons. Kamenev and Beria had guns, but Trotsky had been unable to find one, so had borrowed an ice pick from a mountaineer friend.

“I forgive you,” said the General Secretary, shortly before the pick entered his skull. “God shall not.”

Part II

Southland/South Otago Road Trip

I went on a lengthy (and exhausting) road trip with some friends yesterday. Drove from Dunedin to Nugget Point Lighthouse, then down to Curio Bay, then across to Fortrose, then back to Dunedin via Gore. This was about a 450km round trip in a day – it makes you realise how big Southland actually is, never mind the twists and turns of the scenic Catlins road making everything slower.

Curio Bay is home to a petrified forest, some 170 million years old. Also saw a couple of (rare) yellow-eyed penguins/hoiho there.


My grandparents are buried at Fortrose, so paid them a visit:


The drive back was interesting too. Night-time fog over the Clutha was both spooky (in a horror-story kind of way), and incredibly annoying to drive through.