2Jan

Mellowing & Industry Observations

Here’s what I was saying a year ago and, looking at that post again, I can honestly say I’ve mellowed a lot. I’ve spent far too much time following debate, which is something I hope not to do in 2011. But I think the sheer quantity of opinion kind of numbs a writer in a mellowing way: don’t get me wrong, I truly appreciate any review posted anywhere, but I’m marginally desensitised at the edges: bad reviews don’t quite hurt as much, as a consequence. Everything becomes a learning experience.

So anyway: here are some observations on the industry after another year.

1. The blogosphere ain’t what it used to be. Blogs have come and gone, and actually a lot have appeared in the last couple of years. The net result, combined with Twitter (which absorbs debate and attention) means that conversation is now phenomenally diluted; niches have sprung up within our genre niche. I’d consider print review venues (other than, say, SFX or the Guardian) to be absolutely ineffective in generating debate or playing much of a role in the genre, but the debate online is increasingly watered-down in terms of impact. It ain’t what it used to be. The older blogs still have the bit audience: Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist, A Dribble of Ink, Wertzone, or the Book Smugglers (these are the first four I typed – there are many more, but newer blogs will struggle to come close to getting their page views).

2. For this reason, I really pity new authors. It’s tough out there – it was a year ago – but now, with so much diluted debate, how the hell can you get yourself noticed? Having publishers tell authors to get out there is even more frustrating because…

3. Publishers dominate once again. Remember that time where people controlled debate according to the mildly anarchistic nature of the internet? Not now. The big publishers have created the mega-sites, and have invited bloggers to write guests posts. It’s miraculous – regular, interesting content, around which they can flog their books (and they’re a business – that’s what we expect). Bloggers mention they write guest posts, and send traffic to the mega-sites. Traffic flows one way. What’s more, the ethics of reviewer/blogger neutrality has been raised in discussion a few times. The saddest thing about all of this is that money (resources to set up these sites) now buys attention once again; for a short while, that wasn’t the case.

4. Ebooks turn out not to be the most evil thing in the world, but still no one knows how much to charge for them. Some idiots people believe they should be free. Many publishers charge hardcover prices – or simply don’t release a novel in ebook until the paperback is out. I can’t believe this side of the industry has not yet got its shit together. Sort it, people.

5. Tax bills suck. They really, really suck. I have no problem in paying taxes – I feel rather good, in fact, that in a country like the UK we can give our taxes fund, for example, the NHS. But it doesn’t stop the fact that the bastard final bills crop up on you just after Christmas. You see a lot of what you earn, as a writer, being taxed.

6. Writing gets easier. The more novels you write, the more you learn about their craft and construction; but no matter how many you publish, you realise that few people will get the things you intended – which is, I suspect, the way of things, and also a little bit diva-like on my part.

7. Sometimes spending hours on a blog post is pointless when you can just post (exclusive) cover art to generate debate and hits.

8. It surprises me just how much readers can hate a book (or an author); moreover, it amuses me when they can’t believe that other people liked it.

9. Sometimes people don’t want authors to talk about the real world. I forget, quite often, that authors are often routes of escape for people, and that they might not always appreciate rants of a political nature.

10. Tip for new bloggers: people love lists.

Share this Story

About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

38 comments

  1. Which is why for 2011 unbound is going to be exclusively cover images and lists. 😉

  2. And some blogs have abandoned the model of depending upon publisher scraps due to a general irritation over the entire affair…

  3. Adele – it’s the only way. 🙂

    Larry – I did read that on your blog… Where does your particular irritation with the industry come from?

  4. It’s the top-down nature of things. I’m a proud sort who disdains begging for information, “exclusives,” giveaways and the like. It just reeks to me. Then again, I do collaborate with a few authors on occasion, but that’s a working relationship rather than a quasi employer/employee relationship.

  5. I suspect a lot of the vitriol directed at books or authors is simply someone’s cry for attention. Being obnoxious still works to get a rise out of people and gets the tantrum-thrower noticed, much as it did in kindergarten. Trolls. I’d be willing to bet real money a good deal of the time the curmudgeon couldn’t really care less one way or the other, it simply generates hits on their site and builds their reputation as a bully (which has worked for more than one celeb).

  6. Can I just agree with points 1&5, and point out that genre publishers are much better than general publishers at understanding the purpose of blogs (and the advantages against the trade off for authors).

  7. Larry – yes, I know exactly what you mean about the nature of exclusives. When it becomes about hits, I think something is lost.

    DDS – that’s possibly the case, yes. The nature of online anonymity doesn’t help much.

    Jon – yes, we do forget how sharp genre publishers are – and, to be honest, have always been at interacting with fans. We have a good heritage.

  8. When it becomes about hits, the “soul” is lost. Too many homogenized posts/challenges/etc. out there as it is now. I sometimes feel as though I am reading a bot’s writing when I browse through several blogs these days, but that’s a topic for another time and place, perhaps.

  9. 1. The blogosphere ain’t what it used to be.

    Ah but you’re the entertainer, it’s your job to find your own places of debate, a bloggers audience treats a blog post as something static – something to file away for later – they aren’t, on the whole, a place for discussion. I was going to say that forums are better than blogs for that sort of thing but I’ve never got into blog forums.

    Saying that though bloggers can and some do have different takes on things but the nature of fandom is a level of obsession it’s easier to do a crowd pleasure than a crowd thinker (and usually displeaser).

    I think part of the problem is that passion is one thing but getting that translated into authority is hard – and it’s harder to make accessible debates that will appeal to more than a few people.

    And if you do start a debate you get lots of doomsayers saying we’ve heard it all before….

    2. For this reason, I really pity new authors.

    I don’t pity new authors – Rivers of London is getting a lot of attention, as are a lot of other new authors – we like new authors over established ones and it’s easier for new authors to get attention over the long in the tooth ones – we need people helping established authors again as well as the newbies.

    3. Publishers dominate once again. Remember that time where people controlled debate according to the mildly anarchistic nature of the internet? Not now. The big publishers have created the mega-sites, and have invited bloggers to write guests posts. It’s miraculous – regular, interesting content, around which they can flog their books (and they’re a business – that’s what we expect). Bloggers mention they write guest posts, and send traffic to the mega-sites. Traffic flows one way. What’s more, the ethics of reviewer/blogger neutrality has been raised in discussion a few times. The saddest thing about all of this is that money (resources to set up these sites) now buys attention once again; for a short while, that wasn’t the case.

    It took them long enough! It’s taken five plus years for the Eye of Sauron to find the ring of Bloggers and is now out to corrupt them. I got to say though that it’s not as if they are selling hard drugs – they are selling entertainment which people willing want to buy – the downside is that they only get to the front of the shop rather than exploring the more dusty corners.

    4. Ebooks turn out not to be the most evil thing in the world, but still no one knows how much to charge for them.

    It’ll shake down in the end but I wish they’d do some market research and get investing in it – millions of Kindles, Sony Readers, Nooks etc that can accept content!

    5. Tax bills suck.

    No comment 😉

    6. Writing gets easier.

    Though publishing schedules still have early slots, unless you want to write two a year?

    7. Sometimes spending hours on a blog post is pointless when you can just post (exclusive) cover art to generate debate and hits.

    Who cares about hits then? That’s the problem. Too many egos – what would be better is more group blogs – where content is refreshed but it’s diverse and you don’t have the pressure of writing reviews or keeping active you can take longer to write posts – partly why I’ve joined MFB is so I can write reviews but not have to fill the rest of a blog.

    8. It surprises me just how much readers can hate a book (or an author); moreover, it amuses me when they can’t believe that other people liked it.

    People are odd and bipolar most of the time – it’s better to be a marmite book than a bland one surely?

    9. Sometimes people don’t want authors to talk about the real world.

    Because we see you as locking in a room writing your next novel – we don’t care what you think about the world unless you narrate it!

    10. Tip for new bloggers: people love lists.

    But I suspect that blog readers are hatting seeing the same books over and over again….

  10. What a difference a year makes, eh? I frequent those blogs where I feel like I am getting a genuine article, i.e., the voice of the blog isn’t just for shilling product. I want to know what people think about all kinds of stuff, not just their latest stuff.

    It might sound goofy (or mildly anti-social), but visiting blogs like yours, Aidan Moher, Niall Alexander, John Scalzi and Jay Lake are like stopping in for a brief visit with friends.

  11. Gav – wow, long response.

    1 – I think you misunderstood the point, which was about dilution of debate – that it’s spread so thinly, now, for various reasons, and become less effective.

    2 – The difference used to be – for a few years – that it wasn’t about how much money a publisher spent promoting an author. There was something natural and organic about online reviews and discussion. That is a significant difference – like when the Arctic Monkeys made it big on MySpace. It was raw, honest, and struck a chord with people. Now MySpace is saturated and won’t ever be powerful.

    10 – it was a joke…!

    Jonathan – yeah, totally. It’s about striking a balance. I’ve often been surprised at how many people visit this blog by searching for the author rather than the books – which suggests people want more than the books… And I agree on the community aspects!

  12. I really regret the way in which he publishers have gained the whip hand over the blogosphere.

    Every passing month sees the bloggers sliding that little bit further towards being unpaid PR staff. Every passing month sees being principles bent and working relationships sanctified with lip-smacking and back-scratching for all. Every passing month sees a little bit less discussion and a few more ‘guest posts’ and ‘giveaways’.

    It’s like a rising tide of civilisation.

    Of course the standard of reviewing is rubbish. Being a blogger nowadays is not about becoming a better writer and a more perceptive reader, it’s about getting invited to costume parties.

    What the blogosphere needs is less viceroys for the publishing industry and more angry Afghan tribespeople.

  13. Hmmm re 1. from my view I’ve never found blogs as hubs – I’ve always seen them as little stepping stones though if they try and be hubs they fail due to dilution as you say – better they become a place to find new things and where you know the blogger is exploring things.

  14. I just posted this to Twitter:

    As we’re talking blogging

    – less is more
    – tell me why should I or should I not read a book?
    – make it a personal library not counselling
    – Show me books I’d never had considered
    – take time to linger
    – and show me you’re having fun.

    That’s kind of my bloggers wish list 😀 Anything I should add?

  15. I am aiming for my blog to become a bit more active… although the number of daily views has been pretty good every so often.

    I am now thinking what sort of list I could do for a next post hehe 😛

  16. Relationships where one party has power over the other are always inherently unhealthy and I think this applies to publisher-blogger relationships as much as anything else. However, the idea that the publishers hold all the cards in this relationship is illusory. If you give a single book a bad review and the publisher stops sending you review copies, that news would get out pretty quickly and give the publisher a bad name for being unprofessional. We know how fast bad news travels on the Internet. For this reason, as far as I know, this has never happened in the current SFF blogosphere. The bad press isn’t worth the handful of lost sales from one book getting a bad review, especially since likely there will be other positive reviews elsewhere in the blogosphere.

    I will say there’s one publisher who wanted several bloggers to jump through some hoops (a signed agreement that they would review all of the publisher’s books as soon as they arrived) in order to get their books, and as far as I know no-one did. Even their authors didn’t seem to think this was a good idea, with several of them sending review copies out themselves to get around that restriction.

    As for the rights and wrongs of review copies in the first place, the impression I’ve gotten from publishers is that they don’t want bloggers to give them dishonest reviews as that would damage their credibility and thus reduce their value as marketing tools (and bloggers are seen as marketing tools, we should have no illusions about that). It’s a trade-off: the publisher decides it’s preferable to accept five negative reviews if they get another ten good ones from the same blogger in the same year.

    “Rivers of London is getting a lot of attention, as are a lot of other new authors”

    I remember phoning my local bookshop every day for about two weeks hoping that Ben Aaronovitch’s first novel had come out. That was 21 years ago 😉 I know he’s being marketed as a ‘new author’, but that’s not really the case. In fact, if Gollancz aren’t targetting the DOCTOR WHO fanbase with some promos for RIVERS OF LONDON, they are missing out on a trick.

  17. @Adam: Completely agree. Been excited about the Ben Aaronovitch series for ages. Also, I’d love to know which publisher had those crazy restrictions!

  18. Jonathan – some mightily controversial stuff there, and I would certainly agree about bloggers becoming PR staff. There’s a certain element of publishers exploiting fandom (which they would do as a business) but perhaps they could be more honest about their side of the relationship.

    Andy – any list will do!

    Adam – thanks for your thoughts there, and I’d agree with much of what you said (especially that bloggers are considered as marketing tools).

    And as Jared says, very interesting about those crazy publisher restrictions. Care to name and shame?!

  19. The publisher wish ‘crazy’ restrictions is Angry Robot – if you want a physical review copy you have to guarantee to review the book – though e-versions of their books are freely available.

  20. Adam — The thing is that it’s not as simple as publishers refusing to give you any more ARCs if you slag off their titles. Word of that sort of thing would travel and besides, there’s nothing like a contentious review for attracting attention to a title that might otherwise have been overlooked.

    The influence that publishers have over critical discussion is far more insidious than that.

    For example, if you suddenly find yourself being contacted by publishers and offered stuff for free then you would only be human if you felt a certain degree of pride. The message is that not only have industry professionals heard of you, they think enough of you to invite your comment on their products. It is a lot harder to put the boot into that product than it is to put the boot into product that you have gone out and bought for yourself.

    Another example, bloggers crave feedback. They want to know that someone out there is reading. But it is difficult to feel part of a conversation if you are talking about stuff that nobody else is talking about. By sending out review copies to reviewers, publishers are thereby allowing reviewers to all be on the same page at the same time. Simply by putting the same books in front of people at the same time, you are influencing what gets written about. You are dictating the cultural agenda.

    Throw in stuff like give-aways, costume parties and exclusive interviews and you have a blogosphere that is utterly in hock to commercial interests.

    Angry Robot trying directly to dictate terms is obviously ridiculous, as was the recent moratorium on that piece of post-mortem Wheel of Time fan-fiction and Saxon Bullock’s turn as both copy editor and reviewer but these are only the very tip of a much larger iceberg of (largely negative) influence.

  21. Jonathan M – that’s why I don’t do solo interviews or giveaways. An interview ‘out of season’ may be interesting (when the writer doesn’t have anything to sell at that time) but generally speaking they are part of the marketing spiel. Sometimes I take part in it (I’ve done interviews for other sites) and sometimes not, depending on my level of interest.

    But bloggers are far more cynical and far more aware of the things you are talking about than I think you give credit for. As I said before, bloggers also have power over publishers, which they may exercise as much as vice versa. ARCs, the odd publishing party and the other ephemeral rewards simply aren’t worth the cost of a loss of respect or integrity by becoming publishers’ mouthpieces.

    The problems you identify are also (much moreso, given the money involved) present in professional journalism across all mediums and have been for some time. Unless you resolve to review only out-of-print books by dead authors from defunct publishers, you are going to be furthering someone’s cause or agenda no matter what you do.

  22. Bah, too much of the usual cynicism vs. blogging is great. It always lies somewhere in the middle.

    But one point on publishers getting the upper hand – a cynical view is that we bloggers have totally taken advantage of the publishers. My $1000+ annual book buying budget has dropped to around $50-$100 thanks to all the free books I get. Saying it’s all one-sided is just short-sighted. There is a give and take for pretty much everything in life and I think that quite a few bloggers are plenty savy enough to look out for themselves and retain some integrity.

    Or hell, maybe my 5-years of blogging has just been a super-sekirt plan for me to read a couple of books in a series that I’m hopelessy addicted to before all the other fans?

  23. Neth: I knew it all along! There’s something there, certainly, about bloggers benefitting from free books. But then, publishers are happy to let them take the free books if they talk about them afterwards. Which helps maintain and enhance the frontlist culture that we’re saturated with, which is another problem entirely…

  24. Mark, I’m not denying the benefit the publishers get out of it all, I’m just pointing out that reality rarely lies at one extreme or another. There is a balance out there, it hasn’t been reached and it still maybe a reach, but the over-arching pendulum swings are starting to get smaller (or at least don’t seem to be growing anymore).

  25. well, it could just be theoretical

  26. This is fascinating stuff for me, especially because I’m new to the blogging scene. I’m learning your first point the hard way, although some of it is me having too few relationships with people. I’m working in it, but you’re right. It’s a hard, slow slog to get any traffic at all, let alone any discussion.

  27. I view the dilution of the field as a very good thing. It gives you choice as to who you want to read. Yes, there’s no quality control – but so what? Aren’t you capable of deciding for yourself whether you like a blogger enough to want to come back?

    There has been a flood of new blogs for the past several years, yes. That doesn’t mean that they’re all bad or that you have to bother with every one of them if you find their content poorly written or edited or what have you.

    Personally, I think that The Hat Rack has proven itself by having Absolutely Brilliant posts at least twice a week for more than a year – but every other new blogger thinks exactly the same thing, just with the names and exact posting schedule changed. Do you think that The Hat Rack is puerile, unnecessary, and uninteresting? That’s absolutely fine. Feel free to not return; I’m sure you’ll find what you’re looking for somewhere in this wonderfully disorganized sea of blogs.

    As the for the quantity of blogs making it harder to get noticed – well, that’s just silly. As you (Newton) yourself have observed, 95% of bloggers are reviewing the exact same books; I don’t see new releases having a hard time getting reviewed anytime in the near future.

    (Also posted on The Speculative Scotsman blog)

  28. Speaking only for myself as a genre reader, I think it’s great that authors like Mark C. Newton, Pat Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson, and R. Scott Bakker (among others) are blogging and putting their thoughts out there in more than just book form. I personally have, in more than one instance, read an author’s blog BEFORE I read any of their books.

    While cover art may get you hits, it’s not nearly as likely to get me to read your book as an intelligent post is (particularly one that’s linked to from other bloggers – which is one advantage or at least mitigating result of the “dilution” – more chances that someone might link to you).

    Finally, I gotta agree with The Evil Hat; just as with film criticism, literary criticism is often a matter of personal taste (regardless of what those critics, hobbyist or pro, might claim), and as a reader, after a bit of following, you get a feel as to how closely reviewer X’s tastes tend to match your own.

  29. Matt – thanks for stopping by. Keep at it though! I think it also helps if you throw yourself into the community on Twitter etc., since everyone gets to know you there and give you a link.

    Evil Hat – yeah, I do agree that the dilution is a positive thing – up to the point where the publisher mega-sites take over, and the traffic flows their way. The perfect point would be the dilution without the publisher influence. If that makes sense.

    As for it being silly – well, I wasn’t referring to the reviews, I was referring to authors setting up new sites to make themselves known. You might get to hear about a handful of new releases which are all over the blogs, but there are hundreds of new authors who you’ll never hear about at all… And you’re right in pointing out the backlist authors suffering too. That’s something I didn’t flag.

    It’s them I pity. Me: I didn’t have the big marketing budget – I just set up a place to rant, did it solidly for a few years, got to know a lot of the online community, made the website function in a vaguely modern way, and I think things spread nicely from there. But I was doing it at the right time – and that’s important, because it’s increasingly difficult (though not impossible) for authors to get that effect today. And you should also know that publishers are telling authors to get off their arses to promote themselves – so there’s a little extra pressure from that angle. Oh and just because a book gets a few good reviews doesn’t mean the author can easily build an online brand off the back of it. Why would an author waste hours of their working week (when they already have a job) on top of their writing, just to talk to 20 or so people who visit their site? It’s a long haul. How can they make their voices heard with all the noise around them? (And apologies for the shoddy and unstructured response – I’m working on edits!)

    Guildenstern – thanks for stopping by, and for the encouraging words. I’m glad that you dig proper posts as much as the cover art stuff – it just seemed to get a lot more hits over the last couple of years than some of the more in-depth posts!

    I do agree with these sentiments of niches, btw. I think it’s good. I just also think that the publisher mega-sites take away a little of Your Community from the community and to their own. Why write so many good essays for them when it can go on their own sites? And of course, I really don’t blame publishers – they’re a business, they’re meant to do that to build an astroturf community from scratch so they can sell more of their books in a tough commercial world.

  30. Publisher sites are something that changes things, I’d definitely agree about that, though I wouldn’t consider them a part of the dilution away from the major sites at all – they’re the exact opposite of that. Personally, I’ve so far refrained from really getting to know any of the major ones because I have a hard time believing that something run by Tor, say, will ever have the same objectivity or depth of personal opinion as Aidan or Niall’s sites. The one exception, for me, is Strange Horizons, though that’s not one by any publisher, or at least not one of novel length fiction.

    “Silly” was the wrong word to use and is, looking back, needlessly offensive. I get what you’re saying, and it is probably true to some extent, but I don’t think that author blogs and amateur blogs can quite be compared. Authors are still the centerpiece of this whole thing; their posts are still commonly linked and framed as openers to discussion (or, on some of the more, *ahem* concise blogs the entire discussion). Of course, I’ll admit that my sample here is pathetically small. For a blogger, my knowledge of debut authors is shoddy at best; the only two 2010 debuts I read were Tome of the Undergates and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and of those I only follow Sykes’s blog which is one of the ones I see often linked on the Speculative Scotsman and elsewhere.

    Nathaniel Katz

  31. It’s interesting you cite Aidan there, Nate, since he’s one of those bloggers who now works with Tor.com (I believe in addition to a few posts, he handles their tordotfantasy Twitter account, although I might be remembering wrong there). Don’t think that supports your point too well 😛

    In regards to the “dilution,” all I can say is that I’ve lost interest in the vast mass of newish (less than two years’ old) blogs in recent months because so few have distinctive styles and/or less commonly-discussed works; it just all runs together into a bland mess that might as well be unsweetened oatmeal to me.

    Then again, I reach year 7 of blogging (and 10 years of being active with forum modding and then blogging) in a few months, so the jaded tone comes from being around when some scenes changed…and some people’s tastes shifted away from the cult of the generic new.

  32. Hmm. I walked right into that one, didn’t I? I suppose it’s too late to just change to, say, mention Wert and Neth? (Or you, for that matter?)

    Yours is to some extent a special case, though. It’s not just that you aren’t a fan of their style, you’re no longer primarily a fan of the genre. It’s not fair to blame the newly emerging bloggers because you’re not interested in the next big Epic Fantasy. They’re simply after different things, and you can’t judge them because of taste.

  33. I’d be an even worse example to cite, since I don’t just blog anymore when it comes to fictions. Translation and anthology editing (even when the first project was canceled) preclude me from claiming that 😛

    As for the morass of blogs, it has very little to do with my renewed interest in other literary forms and very much to do with my dissatisfaction that they tend to go little beyond the gushing, “I’m a fan! I’m writing from a book fan’s perspective!” approach. After a while, all those just blur together.

    I may rag on Pat and his odd conclusions (and tastes) every now and then, but at least when he doesn’t mail it in he does provide more life and personality than those who seem to just gush about how they are excited that Publisher X is bringing out this new, “exciting” series from Author Y. After a few years, you view all those posts with the taking of several tablespoons of salt.

  34. My integrity remains, as always, above reproach. Do I suffer less page views because of that? Probably. Do I care in the slightest? Not at all.

  35. Regarding the publishers websites, the only one I’ve any experience with is Tor.com. I’ve found it sometimes has good content (interviews with authors, free short stories, etc), but it suffers from a labyrinthine layout that makes it challenging to navigate. Consequently, I usually only visit it when I hear about something specific there that I am interested in.

    While I acknowledge the site is there ultimately to sell Tor’s books, and is probably far from objective, I still have no qualms visiting it for information on series or authors I already enjoy, or to try short fiction by authors that I might enjoy.

    Mark – thanks for responding to my post personally! 🙂