making books The outside world: people publishing scientification
by Harry Connolly
There was a great piece on Morning Edition yesterday about art that becomes popular versus art that doesn’t. Is there some quality that makes some art successful and preserved forever or is it all just random chance?
Obviously, the big problem with a question like that is that you can look at only one timeline; there’s no way to look at an alternate world where the Potter books never took off (or they did, inevitably).
For those who haven’t clicked the link (you can listen to the short news piece or you can read a transcript of it) a Princeton professor decided to create a number of alternate virtual worlds to test the hypothesis that popular art becomes popular because of its inherent qualities rather than random chance. He created a database of music by unknown, unsigned bands and invited thousands of teenagers to listen and download their songs for free.
Those teenagers were randomly sorted into nine different “worlds.” In one control group, the teens did not get the chance to see which songs other teens selected. In the other eight, they did.
Try not to be wildly surprised, but different songs became popular in different virtual worlds. A song that was number 1 in one setting was 40th (out of 48) in another. Further experimentation established that there was a minimum level of quality below which popularity was not possible, but after that there was no predicting what would be successful and what would not. Read it yourself if you’re curious.
My problem with this is not the assertion that popularity does not come solely from quality, and that a piece of art that is well-known is not inherently better than something obscure. It’s always been perfectly obvious to me that wonderful and excellent books could/should have been popular but weren’t (I’m not talking about me, now).
My objection here is that the good professor chalks popularity up to “chance.” In fact, he (or at least the reporter covering his work) hits the idea of chance very hard. But that’s a black box.
I’ve talked about this sort of thing before, but there are a lot of effects that people attribute to chance simply because they are not well understood. What I would like to see is an experiment that examines the way those songs became popular in each virtual world. Was it an early surge? Was there an early surge that faced a backlash, with the more popular work getting a secondary surge? I’d like to know, and by that I mean that I’d really really like to know.
This week, Postsecret has a theme because it’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. For women 15-24, eating disorders are the leading cause of death, by a long shot.
If you have or know someone with an eating disorder, please seek help or talk to a doctor.
I took my son downtown to see a movie and we missed the start. So, to kill some time, we wandered into the Barnes & Noble to browse around and pick up some books. This is what we came back with:
EX-HEROES was for my kid; I’ve been pretty upfront about my distaste for zombies in all forms. The others were for me. You know what I didn’t realize until later that night when I took them out of the bag? They were all books by dudes.
It’s just too easy to stay in a comfort zone. It’s easy to stick with habits that we don’t even recognize as habits. I don’t talk about it much, but some time ago I decided that I was going to be more mindful about my book purchases; it’s super-easy to just buy books by all men. It’s pretty much the path of least resistance. Oops.
So I’m going to pull Dark Places off the shelf next. And I’m not doing it because it’s the right thing to do (although it is) or that it’s what other people think I should do (they don’t actually care). I’m doing it because carelessly limiting myself will weaken me when I need to make my writing stronger.
If you’re someone who only reads one type of writer, you should try new things, too.
In Spring 2013, I was invited to take part in the Walk The Fire 2 shared-world anthology and I thought writers write and they sell stuff i should say yes and make money. After confirming that this anthology would have more gender parity in the table of contents, I accepted. The Kickstarter made goal, I wrote the story, boom.
Except there was a problem. The editor explained that the story broke the guidelines. It took me a while to figure out why, but the speculative element in the setting was that people would step into a special sort of fire here and emerge from another fire elsewhere. Essentially, teleportation.
However, somehow I got it into my head that this was like a wormhole through spacetime, and that not only could they travel through space, they could travel through time, too.
Oops. I apologized, obviously, and offered to write a new story. The editor thought it might be best for me to hold off for the third antho, but I’d helped pitch the Kickstarter and I didn’t want readers to back a book I wouldn’t be in.
So I sat down and wrote an honest-to-god science fiction story (if you don’t count the teleporting fire thing) set in the far future. Last night I got a note from the editor saying they wanted to accept it without asking for changes.
That feels good. After spending two years on this stinking trilogy–not to mention KEY/EGG, which has languished on my hard drive since the dawn of time–it’s nice to have a short-term goal and payoff.
making books The outside world: people publishing
by Harry Connolly
As a followup to the post I put together linking critical analyses of Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings report, I have something brief to say: It’s clear that Howey’s data isn’t all that great, which he knows. It’s also clear that the conclusions he’s jumping to–even before he gets to analyzing B&N or whatever he’s doing next–are not supported by the data.
That’s too bad because this could have been the data I’m looking for. The book I published before last was self-published, and this year I expect to self-publish five more times. As I consider small press offers to put out the books, it would be really helpful to have numbers to look out.
Sadly, despite Mr. Howey’s bold conclusions, I don’t. Yeah okay the guy keeps talking about the limits of the data he’s collected, but he also talks as though the data has proved him right. Actually, he’s claiming to be proved righter than ever.
As the links in that previous post demonstrate, that’s not the case. It’s pretty clear that, once Howey got the data, he didn’t really know how best to use it, nor did he know what was absolutely not allowed. The enthusiasm and certitude behind his conclusions are textbook Dunning-Kruger Effect.
We’re all prone to confirmation bias. How many people dismissed what he said without really looking at it? How many people really looked at the report, recognized the flaws, then decided to believe it all anyway? It’s easy to believe flattery. It’s easy to stand in the mirror in just the right way to catch yourself at a good angle. We exert that sort of unconscious control all the time; that’s why we need smart knowledgeable people who know the rules. Howey may know how to write a bestseller but when it comes to data analysis he’s just another thriller writer. Also, it seems that his “Data Guy” is really just “Coder Guy.”
It’s too bad. I could have used expert advice. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have any to offer and he doesn’t even know it.
Via fastcodesign, the folks at MIT have tried to create a book with a crude virtual reality component: a programmable book and vest that supposedly makes the reader feel what the protagonist feels.
Follow the link if you’re curious how it’s supposed to work. There’s an embedded video, too, which I didn’t watch.
Personally, I would be embarrassed for any writer that used this technology. Text will already made the reader feel what the protagonist feels, if you do it right. That’s the point of books (well, one of the points) and having a vest that constricts, warms or cools to simulate emotions is just a distraction from the work a writer’s words are meant to do.
Tell Me Another is about stories and storytellers, and I talked about that, I guess? Actually, I pretty much forgot everything I said except: I recommended a book I read recently, I recommended a noirish movie on Netflix Streaming that I loved, and I went into my rant about vampires and vampire lore at some point. Presumably, I said other things, too.
Also, if you go the the podcast site, you’ll see a picture of me. Go ahead if you want. I’m not ashamed. (Much.)
Chad Orzel, (the scientist blogger who wrote How to Teach Physics to Your Dog) wrote a response to my own post about persistence, which was itself… actually, let’s just say there’s a conversation going on and leave it there. One thing I should point out: Chad has no reason for feeling guilty about “breaking in” the way he did. Blogging is writing, and he clearly put in the hours to do what he does well.
That said, not everyone kicks off their career in “ridiculously unlikely” ways. I mailed cold queries to the agents, which is the most boring way to start off in the whole world. It’s only after breaking in that things got weird. So, that’s a method anyone can try deliberately.
Yep, shocking but true. I spent decades of my life reading and writing, studying texts and story, and sweating over revisions of my own work only to hoodwink readers. You got me!
Or maybe I think that Amazon reviews are not especially important. Maybe I think an unknown number of the reviews are completely fake/done as a personal favor. Maybe a substantial number are written because the reader has some weird axe to grind that has little to do with the book at hand. Certainly many of the reviews are written by readers eager to share their honest opinions without much evidence that those honest opinions actually have an impact.
I’ve been trying to come up with a metaphor for this, but nothing seems right. Not every reviewer is being paid, so you can’t call it a whorehouse. Not every reviewer is friend or family to the author, so you can’t call it a theatrical review of a grade school play. Not every reviewer is a twitchy reactionary lunatic, so you can’t call it a recruitment session for the Libertarian Party (I kid, I kid).
I suppose I could ask if anyone reading this can think up an appropriate metaphor, but seriously, fuck you guys.
Yeah, I’m aware of the website http://www.authorearnings.com/, which supposedly contains the results of a big data-crunching project instigated by Hugh Howey. Apparently, a coder/analyst/whatever approached Howey with the idea of taking self-reported sales to Amazon sales rankings and using them to analyze Amazon’s bestsellers list to see which types of books (self/other/small press) do best for authors.
I say “supposedly” above because as I write this, high traffic has crashed the site. [Update: I accessed it a few minutes ago.] The only place to find the data at the moment is on Joe K*nr*th’s blog, and he’s added long exchanges with a straw man figure “Legacy John”.
Which… ugh. So. Much Smug.
As a so-called hybrid author who has self-published before and will self-publish again this year (thank you, Kickstarter backers) I’m interested in this analysis. Unfortunately, Howey and K*nr*th are not exactly the most trustworthy of sources. If confirmation bias were a medical condition, both men would have to be kept alive by a machine in some ICU somewhere. Anyway, the numbers are interesting but I’m reserving judgement on them until someone with more time and expertise picks them apart.
Check it out, you guys: a short documentary on the making of Thundarr.
I honestly had no idea they’d released the complete series on DVD. Thirty bucks is a pretty steep price, but I may treat myself as a reward for finishing and releasing The Great Way. Still, it sucks that the DVD case says it’s part of the “Hannah Barbera Collection” when it wasn’t a Hannah Barbera show.
Why is this not on Netflix? How is this IP laying fallow when they’re doing another fucking Ninja Turtle movie? Channing Tatum should should stop campaigning to play Gambit (of all things) and push for a live-action Thundarr instead.
I’d be at the front of the line.
For folks who don’t know who Harriet Klausner is, a brief introduction. Here’s the full text of her review of my debut novel, CHILD OF FIRE:
In Hammer Bay, Washington, the ecomony is booming due to the toy factory; however, residents even those who work at the prime employer fail to realzie that some of their offspring can use magic.
Twenty Palace Society field agent Annalise Powliss hunts and kills rogue magic practitioners. Convicted felon Ray Lilly is her chauffeur, but they share a not so kind past as he betrayed her so he knows she plans to kill him at the most opportune time. The Society learns of the goings-on in Hammer Bay and led by take no prisoners Annalise plan to destroy the factory and kill anyone of any age who uses magic. However, the execution fails and Annalise is hurt; Ray must finish the assignment against a much more powerful sorcerer who sacrifices humans especially children to gain incredible amounts of power.
The key to this small town fantasy is the use of magic as collateral damage is not only acceptable it is preferable if needed to complete a mission. That premise ties the rogue and the Society together as innocent bystanders die in high numerical waves, which in turn brings a sense of realism to the exciting story line. The dysfunctional relationship between the driver and his boss enhances the tension of an exhilarating High Noon paranormal thriller.
All spelling infelicities in the original; this is just a cut and paste.
As Klausner’s reviews go, this one is better than average. Yes, it appears to have been written as quickly as possible with little regard for spelling or how it reads. Yes, some details are wrong; Ray isn’t anyone’s chauffeur, although he is driving the beater van at the start of the book. However, most of the plot details are correct, which isn’t always a given in Ms. Klausner’s reviews. However, she did give my book her lowest review: only 4 stars. For her, that’s practically a slam.
So, yeah. Her reviews are not insightful and some this year she will post her 30,000th on Amazon.com. That’s, er, a lot. I’ve heard that some times she posts as many as six reviews a day; how many books could you speed read in a day?
But whatever, right? No harm done… unless you’re the sort of person who’s Bothered By Things. See this 2012 “investigation” into Klausner’s reviews, which discovered that she received free ARCs from publishers, gives them positive reviews, then hands them off to her son to sell for COLD HARD CASH.
Nevermind that The Strand bookstore is floor to rafters with resold ARCs from other book reviewers. Nevermind that there’s no difference in what Klausner does and what other reviewers do besides scale. Apparently, she’s a woman reviewing badly for nefarious purposes and a group of people have begun to follow her around and badmouth her reviews. That link takes you to Sharon Lee’s new book Carousel Sun; how pleased would you be to discover that, on the week your book comes out, Internet Melodrama is breaking out on the book’s Amazon page that has nothing to do with the author. (Buy her book, folks, to help soothe that pain.)
[Edited to add: There are, as of this writing, 46 comments under Klausner's review, many justifying the decision to follow Klausner from page to page to taunt and mock her including one comparing her to Timothy McVeigh(!). Ugh.]
You might think I would be upset about what Harriet does–write universally positive reviews so she can continue to churn out incomprehensible reviews on books she’s barely skimmed for a few thin bucks, but once again you’d be wrong. My take is this: It’s a hard hard world. If she can make a few bucks (nobody is getting rich selling ARCs on fucking half.com) for herself and her family, and if publishers want to keep sending review copies to her, let them. As sins go, this isn’t half so terrible as the moving flame war hitting the Amazon pages of author after author.
Klausner-stalkers, find something useful to do. Advocate. Make something. In fact, Instead of reviewing Klausner’s work (fish -> barrel) write your own, and make them good. If your lives are so comfortable that a minor transgression like this annoys you so much, give thanks to whatever deity you worship and go volunteer at a food bank.
Because this thing where you follow a woman from page to page to insult her? That’s just sad.
I watched this week’s episode of Agents of SHIELD, and I’m glad I stuck with it. The show is actually coming together into something smart and interesting.
At the start, the characters were a little hard to sympathize with, but after a few rocky episodes they shook out the kinks and gave them a reason to connect. Now, as they approach the end of the first season, things are going seriously off the rails and Agent Coulson, who had seemed like Mr. Super-Mellow-Competence, is beginning to seriously fuck up.
Since the second episode the show has suggested that Coulson is not the same guy he was before he was killed. Now, when it looks like he’s put his team up against an enemy they can’t beat, the tension has finally arrived.
So has Deathlok.
So, first of all, let me just say that Deathlok is the Marvel character I most wanted to write for the screen. Back in the day when I planned to chase script work, he was the guy I wanted to pitch.
Now J. August Richards is playing him on TV and I gave up on the idea of being a movie writer ten years ago. Still, it’s cool/sad for me.
Yeah, there’s some stuff that doesn’t really work, but at the moment it’s more entertaining than Arrow, workout scenes or no.