What Is “Alternate History” and What Is “Self Published”?

Editor’s Note: Francis Hamit, who self-published his Civil War espionage novels The Shenandoah Spy and The Queen of Washington, contributes insight pieces about the strategies and emerging technologies he uses to market his books.

By Francis Hamit: We are about to roll out the audiobook edition of The Queen of Washington, wonderfully narrated by Melanie Mason and David Wilson Brown.  It will run about nine and a half hours and we will have links for a limited number of free review copies.  Out of respect for the narrators, we only want to give these to people who will listen to the entire narration and not cheat by skimming the e-book. They worked very hard for several months and deserve no less.  I had very little to do with it, aside from approving the final version.  ACX.com is the distributor and it will be exclusively available on Audible.com, Amazon.com and iTunes.  They set the price, not us.  So is this still “self published”?  Melanie and David are the real stars in this genre, not me.  ACX.com does the final technical execution,not me.  I just sit back and collect my share of the money.

This book is my second American Civil War spy thriller.  Originally published in 2011 just as I became desperately ill and almost died, it did not get the usual publicity push.  Leigh Strother-Vien* was pretty sick, too and we are just now recovered.  In the interval we escaped from Pine Mountain Club to Sherman Oaks, which took a great of effort and money.  So this, in a way, is a stealth re-launch of the print and e-book editions on the theory that fresh attention generates collateral sales.  We have set up a new Facebook page,(https://www.facebook.com/QOWaudiobook) bought an ad in Audiofile Magazine and will put out press release on PR Newswire.  We also have the Christopher Marlowe film project underway.

I called this “Alternative History” rather than “Historical Fiction” but is it?  Where does one begin and the other stop?  In The Queen of Washington Rose Greenhow’s husband, unhappy and frustrated by a fading career and a bad marriage where he had been made a cuckold fakes his death in 1853 and runs off to China with his two beautiful Chinese mistresses.  This is the culmination of a long campaign of seduction orchestrated by Judah P. Benjamin, revealed as a long-term agent of the British, working with British Chinese agents from Hong Kong.  It’s a very complicated dance and entirely my own invention.   Greenhow died in 1853 after being attacked.  That’s the fact rather than the fiction.

There are no whiz-band deus e-machina. elements here.  No time travel, no advanced weapons imported from another time.  It didn’t happen. I made it up.  But what is it? Fish or Foul?  What is needed for that “Alternative history” designation? The basis here is social science not technology. .

“Self-publishing” is a negative term because you don’t have the imprimatur of a big publishing house behind you, or even a small one.  Your work is either automatically denied a review or given special scrutiny.  A recent review of the hardbound edition of this book criticized the quality of the jacket paper.as being too thin and tending to curl.   Using that paper was a decision of the printer, not us, so I thought it very unfair; just looking for something to complain about.  It doesn’t really matter because most people are now buying the e-book edition, which is only $3.99 but actually provides more net profit   .We are now doing all print edition as very short print-on-demand runs, as a convenience for the customer, not because there is any money to be made.  The audiobook edition is where we expect to make the real money.  Why?  Because we’re also in the film business and that’s where the big bucks really are.  The audiobook is also a demonstration of how a film can be made from the same story.  Every novel I write is also a treatment for film or television.

I invite comments on the above.  I also hope that, before weighing in on the merits of this book, people will actually bother to read it first.

(*) Congratulations to Leigh Strother-Vien and Francis who celebrated 26 years together as roomates, business partners and best friends on July 1.

13 thoughts on “What Is “Alternate History” and What Is “Self Published”?

  1. I would call it historical fiction. For it to be alternate history something about society has to be changed, not just personal stories. But that’s just my opinion.

  2. That’s actually very helpful; a view of the question that had not occurred to me.

  3. The most basic sort of alternate history doesn’t involve time travel, weapons imported from the future, or aliens landing during the middle of WWII. In it’s most basic form it’s an exploration of the consequences of a single-event happening differently, ideally an event that easily could have happened differently. What if JFKs flight from Ft. Worth to Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 was diverted to another field because of mechanical difficulties during flight.

    I think the defining difference between alternate history and historical fiction is that in alternate history, the fictional events change the course of history in a way that would be noticed by historians, which I think is another way of agreeing with bookworm1398. In historical fiction, the story is either a fictionalized rendition of real events, or is completely made up using history as a backdrop.

    In your example, I presume that Greenhow never surfaces again and the course of history is exactly the same as if he had really died. Maybe that is what happened, and you are the first one to guess the truth 🙂 I wouldn’t call that alternate history.

    Consider all of the WWII movies that have been made. Generally they are either fictionalized accounts of real events or are completely fictional stories that use historical events as a backdrop. One does not generally expect to watch a WWII movie and discover that the US repelled the attack at Pearl Harbor. As far as I can recall, I have only ever seen one movie set in WWII where by the time the film has ended, events have happened which would change the larger course of the war to be different from the way they actually turned out. I suppose that one film could be considered alternate history of sorts, but usually the point of departure is at the beginning of the story, not the end, as it was in this case.

  4. Alternate history needs a historical fact to be changed. The general that led a battle died before the battle may be enough in some cases. Someone’s personal invented story during some historical period is not enough to make it alternate history (unless if that someone somehow influence real historical events – change the outcome of a battle, change the outcome of a war, kill someone that need to become a president and so on). It is the “what if” story – what if something happened slightly differently. Greenhow (unless if he interacts and changes real historical characters) sounds like a hero in a historical fiction. Did his non-death change something in the future? If the answer is no – even if it is the alternate story of a person, it is not alternate history (in my book anyway).

    Time travel and the like send the story into the time travel category and not really in the alternate history. Advanced weapons may keep it in the genre but by usually end up in the steampunk or the similar genres (unless if they come from the future – then see the previous sentence).

    Just thinking aloud here 🙂 And agreeing with bookworm1398 and everyone else in the thread.

  5. I had a brief mild argument with Charles N. Brown about this topic, just before he died (we were at Readercon, he died on the plane on the way home). We were discussing John Crowley’s book Four Freedoms. Charles insisted that it was alternate history, because the city in Oklahoma that’s the setting for most of the book, the large airplane factory there, and even the model of plane built there, never existed, but were invented by Crowley. I differed, and agree with my local library catalog, which calls it historical fiction.

  6. Alternate history, depending on the content, can be considered science fiction, as Philip K. Dick did in MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. The change was dramatic, and could not just be looked at as just. “fantasy history” Still, science fiction is historical fiction –of the future–. So alternate history is science fiction–of the past.
    Again: context.

  7. Charles insisted that it was alternate history, because the city in Oklahoma that’s the setting for most of the book, the large airplane factory there, and even the model of plane built there, never existed, but were invented by Crowley.

    Wouldn’t that mean that nearly all fiction set in the past is alternate history? 221 B. Baker wasn’t a valid London address until after Arthur Conan Doyle died; does that make Sherlock Holmes alternate history.

    From the Amazon listing it seems to me that the factory in Four Freedoms was invented to intentionally not alter the larger sweep of history, but to fit in with it, to make it seem as if that place and that factory did exist and that what went on there was a mirror of what went on in the factories that really did exist. I also agree with you and your library catalog.

  8. Actually, later in my Civil War narrative, Robert Greenhow will reappear. In England, in 1864.

  9. I am guessing that in OTL Judah Benjamin wasn’t actually an agent of the British Secret Service. But he’s a character I know only through his appearances in Turtledove books, which are more explicitly AH.

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