Question for readers

Because I’m really lazy busy writing, I’m asking you to provide content today. Answer in the comments.

Is there any author of whom you read a book or two (or three), when you became aware of this author’s offensive political opinions/offensive online behaviour/general arsheholery and then stopped reading this author’s books?

I’m asking the question, because there are voices like Dean Wesley Smith, who say that your personality or opinions don’t matter at all, and I’m not terribly sure that this is true, at least not if you’re not extremely successful already. Or even if you’re extremely successful.

This is kinda related to the J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith thing. I believe that the author is the brand, and if the brand says “I’m a homophobe” or “I’m a defensive, up-my-backside pick”, I’m having an extremely hard time believing that this doesn’t have some sort of influence. It might not have been so important pre-internet and when all reviews (and author retorts) were printed and had a limited audience, but I think the internet has changed this.

So. There you go. Attack.


Reviews and the writer

Much as the internet has been beneficial to many people, it has also brought some uneasy consequences. Before the advent of Facebook and Twitter, writers used to write books, and reviewers used to review them, the reviews would be published and that was the end of that. Well, I’m sure it wasn’t always that simple, but you get the gist.

Now that everyone is on Facebook and Twitter, people of the SF/F writing community are all living in each other’s pockets. We’re all friends with authors on Facebook, Twitter and goodreads. This is, for the most part, a good thing, until the time comes to review books, and you find that there is something deeply uncomfortable about writing a review for an author you’re friends with in several places on the internet.

If your review is really good, the author might be pleased, but you might be accused of cronyism. If your review contains critical elements, you might feel that your relationship with the author might be damaged by it. It’s a no-win situation.

Reviews, what do they mean?

As reader, I don’t look at reviews. I don’t buy from Amazon, or any places where books have reviews (I’m a Book Depository gal), and I don’t check out books on goodreads to see what people have written. I have only once bought a book after reading a review. It was a dreadful review, and I bought the book out of curiosity. To me, reviews are white noise. The only thing reviews mean to me is that people are reading the book. I often read unusual books, so I don’t mind if there are no reviews.

When I do look at reviews, the books with a complete range of reviews (including some really bad ones) appeal more to me than the books with the gushing reviews. Somehow, readers are more able to describe why they didn’t like a book than why they did like it. When they’re giving reasons for hating the book, they’re telling me what sort of book it is. And hey! I may actually like that type of book, or at least not mind whatever the other person found problematic.

As an author, I like reviews because it means people are reading my stuff. I don’t really mind what people are saying or how they rate the book. I looked at average ranking of my favourite books on goodreads. It was between 3 and 4. In fact, almost all well-known classics or popular books have an average rank between 3 and 4.

As author, I tend to leave reviews and reviewers alone. Reviews are for readers, not for me. I once had a well-known author post a review I’d written on goodreads on his blog. Aargh!! Horrible! The embarrassment! I will never review that author again (I haven’t actually bought anything from this author since). I suppose when you write the review, you know that the author will probably see it, but you don’t expect (nor want) the author to butt in and look over your shoulder. To me, that constitutes a breach of trust.

For all the reasons above, I don’t embarrass my writing friends by asking for reviews, I don’t comment on reviews people have written, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate them. They’re just not for me.

How you feel about reviews, as reader or writer?

Buying books: how do ratings influence you?

The other day there was a thread about ratings on a forum I belong to. Someone argued that a one-star review killed sales. Someone else argued the opposite. In combination with a survey reported by Dean Wesley Smith on what influences book buyers, people wondered how much rating influences someone to buy a book.

I only ever once bought a book solely based on a review. It was not a good review by any stretch of the imagination. But the review made me so curious about the supposedly bad ending that I wanted to see for myself. I read the book and saw where the reviewer came from. The ending was unusual, in that one of the characters made a decision that would not have been mine (neither would it have been the reviewer’s, I guess).

The funny thing is–because of that very negative review, I bought the book, and to date, I still remember the book, whereas I’ve forgotten countless other books I read around the same time. I spoke about the book at home, and my daughters read it as well.

So, yeah, one bad review, and three reads. Mostly, I don’t care about ratings at all. Sometimes I read the reviews. What I’m looking for in reviews is more setting and subject matter related comments, and much less what the reviewer thought about them. I find the bad reviews a lot more interesting than the good ones.

Do bad reviews stop you picking up a book?

I did some very unscientific research. I looked at the Amazon reviews of a number of my favourite big-name authors. By far the majority of books averaged 3-3.5 stars, sometimes over hundreds of reviews, including many one-star reviews. Obviously, bad reviews do not stop buyers.

How do you decide what to read?

This is the flipside of book marketing. If you understand why people read what they read, then you have a better handle on where and how to market.

For me, it looks somewhat like this:

I buy my first book by a particular author book because I have heard of the author, and I’ve heard that he/she writes what I enjoy, and I’ve heard that other people have enjoyed this author’s books. This ‘hearing’ of an author happens informally, usually in cyberspace. The author might be part of a forum, the author might write an interesting blog or I might have attended panels by the author at a con, or other such interactions.

I rarely (almost never) pay attention to reviews (don’t read them). I target the books I buy, regardless of the book’s ranking on Amazon or elsewhere.

What about you?

the death of the publishing industry?

I feel there has never been so much written about this subject as this week, when independently, Borders in the US and Borders/Angus & Robertson in Australia went into receivership.

People are wailing. OMG, the publishing industry is dying! OMG, the evil internet! John Birmingham has much to say about it here.

Truth is, in Australia at least, the writing was on the wall for quite some time. In the 90’s I used to love visiting the famous basement flagship Angus & Roberston store in Pitt Street mall. They used to have lots of interesting stuff. I often write in a book where and when I bought it, and even now I come across some real gems I bought back then. It’s been a long time since any Angus & Roberston store carried anywhere near that kind of variation in stock.

When I published non-fiction, I tried to get my book into local A & R stores, only to be told to deal with some nebulous headquarters who didn’t deal with small publishers. As a result, their material was cookie-cutter, bland stuff. I did eventually sell some material to individual A & R stores, but only on order, and they were often stores in small towns which were probably the only bookshop in town.

My experience with Borders is similar. Once I got over the OMG-what-is-that-yank-place-doing-over-here sentiment, and Borders opened a huge shopfront in Chatswood, where there were some bookshops, but none I found outstanding, I discovered that they had an amazing range of SFF. The change came last Christmas, I think, when I received a Borders book voucher and wanted to buy a newly published fantasy book by an Australian author, published in Australia. They didn’t have it. I asked the assistant, who told me that none of their stores in Australia had ordered a copy. I was flabbergasted. What? A major bookshop chain orders no copies of an Australian author with decent sales, published by a major Australian publisher? Something has to be wrong there.

On the publishing front, Borders was also hard to deal with. All their orders go through a central point, take ages to be processed, and ages to be paid. I did sell books to Borders (and had the satisfaction of seeing my books there) but the number of hoops I had to jump were incredible.

One thing I think both Borders and A & R failed to realise was that readers value diversity and choice. It is not possible to run a successful bookshop with only the bestsellers. If readers come into the store and don’t find what they want, they will vote with their feet, or more accurately, their mouses. Books are a product that is exquisitely suited to internet selling, more so than any product on the planet. A book doesn’t need to be tried on. It’s not extremely heavy. When you know what the book is about, you don’t need to physically see it. Readers will gravitate towards those places that can offer the most choice, and have the best percentage of being able to deliver the book a reader wants.

The internet does that. There is no way a bookshop is going to be able to compete. The cat is out of the bag. It won’t go back in.

What does this all mean for publishing? Nothing, really. Books are still being published, and people still want them. They method of delivery will change. ‘That’s all’.

A book with a message

Does your work have a message? While I’d hazard a guess that most writers tend to write books or stories that support their worldviews, there are some who write books or short stories to deliver the message. I’m thinking foremost about Christian literature, but there are also large numbers of books that carry much more subtle messages.

Before you dismiss those books as ‘preaching’, think about it: haven’t you ever learnt anything, or changed your mind, no matter how insignificantly, because of something you read in a work of fiction?
I’m pretty sure everyone has done this. Every book carries many different messages. Usually, they’re buried deep in the text. Usually, they can be interpreted in more than one way.

Some examples off the top of my head, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi has several environmental messages. The most simplistic would be that all genetic engineering is bad, but you could also interpret the book as a warning that we should look better after our genetic heritage. The simple message you could take from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is that government is bad and reality TV is hideous. More subtle messages could be that common people will survive no matter what authorities do to them.

We don’t know what either author intended to say with the book, and that doesn’t really matter. The relationship of a reader with a book is one the author has little control over.

But say, you wanted to make sure that the reader understand and hears your message, but without being preachy.

Here is my take on inserting a message into a book:

The strongest opinions can be put in the mouths of your characters with nary a rise on the preachiness scale. Just make sure that the character’s opinion is not being bandied as the only right way to live, because this very quickly turns your character into a jerk.

Make sure that you leave plenty of space for the readers to think and draw their own conclusions.
Make the character put up some arguments against your message for a more balanced view. If you do this in dialogue, don’t resolve the discussion one way or another; characters should be allowed to have different opinions.

I always find it interesting to construct a story such that each reader can take home his or her own message, the message they are prepared to hear. Accept that some people will not agree with you about the underlying values of the story.

When your book or story makes the reader think in one way or another, you have succeeded.

That’s my take on messages in books. What about you?

why you should read military SF

A discussion of a Worldcon panel ‘Military SF revisited’ with panel members Toni Weisskopf (Baen’s editor of military SF), Howard Tayler (Hugo nominee and cartoonist of military SF) and Jean Johnson (novelist)

What is it with the military in Science Fiction?

I’m not talking solely of the subgenre military SF, a market well and truly cornered by Baen’s, but the fact that the military has a place in a lot of SF. In fact, point me to an SF novel that doesn’t involve military, militia or police.

I think the reason may be this:

In order to mount large operations, and space flight and space colonisation are prime examples of large operations, you need to have an organisation with tight discipline and fairly authoritarian decision-making processes. A military-style organisation is supremely suited to fill that spot.
They could be mercenary armies or merchant forces, but it is likely they will all function to a fairly rigid command structure. The military provides logistics, rescue and defense and simply people to do things.

Hence, military SF.

This was a very well-attended and emotional panel. It was the last panel of the day. The room was packed. I mean emotional in that it engaged a wide range of emotions. There were many panels I enjoyed and found useful, but this was the one where I felt most ‘right’.

Toni started by asking the audience who had served in the military (many hands went up), or who had a family member who had. I fall in the latter category. My father was an air traffic controller in the air force for seven years. He’d taken a civilian job by the time I was old enough to remember, but military life was still fresh for him. If I remember anything about my youth, it’s his stories of life in the barracks. Mostly, they’re stories of discipline, of consequences. This is precisely what I like about the military. The discipline is harsh, but the consequences of not following protocol and orders are clear and straightforward. In fact, I believe that every parent-to-be should hear or read these stories so they can understand the sequence order, disobedience, consequence.

Today, perhaps thankfully, the military is a long way from the lives of a lot of people. Most countries have abolished compulsory conscription. On the other hand, governments make decisions that require military involvement. In other words: someone’s got to do the dirty work. People go out and serve in whatever locality the government decrees, most often in third world countries these days, and find themselves in hostile territory once they return home. Their former civilian friends have seen the brutal images on tv; they never agreed with the government sending troops anyway, and why can’t we all get along and be happy. Who needs the military anyway?

One of the functions military SF can fulfil is to bridge that gap, by making soldiers’ lives real through fiction.

And ‘real’ is neither good nor bad.

Military SF as subgenre is about the military, with military applications and problems, but not the glorifying of killing (Toni called this military porn). Military SF can involve an army representing a government, a private force or mercenaries. Characters often face crises of command. The military doesn’t have to be portrayed as either good or bad (there are examples of both within military SF). Most often, the military just is, a part of life, necessary. Sadly, perhaps, but necessary.

It is important that the writer knows the military, and has access to readers in the military. The everyday situation of soldiers is important, a life which is often monotonous and involves a lot of waiting.

For me personally, this panel put a lot of pieces into place. I had previously been hesitant to call my upcoming novella Charlotte’s Army military SF. It does involve a character in the military, but being a doctor, she’s on the outside. The story neither glorifies nor vilifies the armed forces, and involves a serious breach of command.

Military SF further allows us to look at the military aside from the political baggage that it comes with in the real world. Whereas a novel about a present-day military situation always draws questions about whether or not the conflict is justified, stupid, racist, or whatever, in SF, the adversaries aren’t real, and military processes and attitudes take centre-stage. Hidden in the pages of military SF are gems about human behaviour, about social structure, and about human reactions in extreme situations.

For all the reasons above, you could do worse than pick up a military SF novel.

P.S. Howard Tayler is an incredibly fun person, aside from his amazing boots (does anyone have a picture of his boots?). While most nominations for graphic novel involved an entire team of writers and artists, Howard does Schlock Mercenary all by himself. I haven’t read graphic novels, but meeting him makes me think I should check them out.

About series

One of the things new writers are told in various workshops is that your first book must absolutely stand alone if you are to sell it.

Here is what agent Kristin Nelson has to say on the matter

I feel it’s one of those things where new writers are being ‘advised’ by slightly more experienced writers who think they know the ropes but haven’t sold anything either and are regurgitating rumours. Of course it depends on the genre, but I’ve read debut novels that absolutely do not stand alone. People I know have sold trilogies as their first sale. To me, it seems pretty silly, from a publisher’s point of view, to commit only to the first book. Either the marketing department likes the premise, or it doesn’t.

Fantasy and Science Fiction worlds are hard to build within the space of 100,000 words while telling a cracking story at the same time. Often, more word-space is needed to convey the story, so a large story is split into two or three volumes. A publisher would buy the concept of the entire series. Readers of SFF love series, so where’s the problem?

the slush minion’s diary #4: sympathetic characters

This ‘slush minion’ post is more of a question than anything else.

There is a school of thought that says that ‘must have sympathetic main character’ is a box that must be ticked before a story is publishable.

I tend to think that the character could be unsympathetic, as long as he/she is interesting. An example: I’ve just watched District 9. The main character Wikus van der Merwe…man, he’s an annoying prick at the start. But he’s a CHARACTER with big fat capital letters, and after a while you feel sorry for him. He carries the story, because of what he was and what he becomes. But sympathetic… er…

So what’s your opinion? Do you automatically stop reading a story when you don’t like the main character? What are attributes that would make you stop reading?