Of readers and gatekeepers – a call to arms

Are you reading this? Then I’m talking to you. You’re a reader and you have a new responsibility. I’m including myself in this. I’m a writer, but I’m a reader too. Any writer worth his or her salt should be a voracious reader, and we’ve got a new responsibility as well. We’re all the New Gatekeepers. No, not extras in a Doctor Who episode, don’t get over-excited.

There’s so much talk about the changing face of publishing, and justifiably so. It’s an exciting time and writing and publishing is going through a renaissance brought about by new technologies. That means there are options out there for pretty much everyone to get their writing out into the world, and a lot of people are taking up the opportunity. Some people are doing seriously well out of it, like Amanda Hocking. Others are doing rather less well, like the poor woman that immolated her career with one online review – you know who I mean. But one of the net results of this revolution in publishing is that readers have been saddled with a massive new responsibility.

Gatekeeping is important. In the good old days of the late 90s and early 2000s, and since forever before that, the gatekeepers were the publishers. Writers would approach publishers, either directly or through agents, and publishers would decide what was published and what wasn’t. They essentially filtered what everyone got to read. The upside of this was, largely, the stuff that made it into print was generally well written and worth reading. Generally. We all know publishers are quite capable of turning out reams of utter shite too. But on the whole they ensured a general level of quality control. The downside, apart from the afore-mentioned shite, is that they also ensured that anything risky or unusual, something strangely cross-genre, something not immediately saleable, was unlikely to see the light of day. There were self-publishing and small press success stories, where the unlikely became massive, but those hits were very, very rare.

Now, with the advent of Print On Demand and ebook technology, publishers have found those gatekeeping responsibilities ripped away. Writers are still keen to be published by the big guys – there’s a definite advantage to it, both in terms of credibility and distribution, hence readership. But literally millions of people are circumventing the publishers and self-publishing. Millions more are scoring smaller deals with small press. The volume of stuff out there is staggering. And a lot of it is complete shit.

Remember, the publishers themselves have turned out many stinkers over the years, but the strike rate for quality – in editing, formatting, production and so on, as well as writing ability – has generally been kept high even if the stories were rubbish. Not always, but often. Nowadays people think it’s easy to write and be “published” and there’s loads of stuff out there that really shouldn’t see the light of day. Poorly written, poorly edited, poorly formatted – just poor. And that’s where we as readers come in. This is why we are the New Gatekeepers.

Success in writing has always relied on word of mouth. When a big publisher puts the might of the marketing machine behind a new release that word of mouth gets a massive head start, but it’s still the reviews and recommendations of critics and readers that determine whether a book is truly successful or not. That’s still the case, but the mainstream reviewers can’t keep up with the tsunami of words constantly bearing down on them. Along with all the newly published writers, a whole bunch of new reviewers have cropped up, and many book review blogs are developing considerable power. This is a very good thing, as it helps to strim out the crap and let the quality stuff rise to the top.

But you don’t need a review blog to wield power in this new world. You’re a reader – you have enormous power. If only you’d use it. By the Power of Yourskull! Or, more accruately, the brain within it. If you read something you like, tell people all about it. Recommend it to your friends, buy it and gift it to people. You can gift ebooks now as well as print books. There is no better result for a writer than a reader enjoying the book and recommending it. But don’t stop there – there’s so much more you can do, very easily.

You don’t need to be a talented reviewer to review books. Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Goodreads, Smashwords – all these places and more make it very easy for you to leave a review and rate a book. Or just rate it. Your review doesn’t have to be anything lengthy to have an impact. For example, look at this review of my second novel, MageSign, that a reader called Joefredwheels left on Amazon.com (Yes, I’m going to use my own work as reference. Sue me.):

excellent follow up – great story continuing adventure of first book protaganist. hoping for more stories in this world. Baxter is an excellent writer of a fast past exciting plot. THIS IS WORTH THE MONEY. BUY THE BOOK

He also rated it five stars. Brilliant. It’s very short, it’s not worrying about being good writing in itself, it’s simply conveying the person’s enjoyment of the book. Sure, it’s cool when readers take the time to write a few paragraphs of carefully thought out critique when they review, but the review above is just as valuable.

Here’s another example, this time a review of RealmShift, left on Amazon by Cathy Russell “Ganymeder”:

a well thought out tale – I liked that this story had believable characters and explored faith (or lack of), it’s origins, etc. It had a lot of deep themes. The characters were well thought out. The plot was engaging, and I liked the whole idea of a superhuman who could kick the devil’s ass. While reading this, I kept thinking it would make a great action movie or comic book too. I’d recommend this. 4 stars.

That wouldn’t have taken long to write, but in a single paragraph she recommends the book and gives some basic reasons why. Again, brilliant.

I can’t express how grateful I am when people take the time to do this. And it’s something we can all do, for any publication, anywhere on the web.

I tend to review books I enjoy here on my blog, but I’m a regular blogger anyway. I always rate them on Goodreads. I’m also planning to copy my reviews over onto Amazon and Goodreads – I wish I’d done it as I wrote them, as now it’s going to take a while and a concerted effort. But I’ll do it, because I plan to put my reviews where my mouth is.

So we, as readers, are the new gatekeepers. It’s our responsibility to help spread the word about the good stuff we read, and the bad. You don’t have to leave negative reviews on anything – just don’t review them. But it’s an act of true benevolence to leave good reviews of stuff you enjoy, or drop by websites and leave a star rating. You can write a single line or single paragraph review and copy that to all the sites you visit or shop at. If you do blog, then reviewing a book on your site is fantastic. But whatever you do, do something. Help spread the word. As writers, nothing is more valuable to us than the recommendations of readers. It’s always been that way, and now it’s more true than ever. Readers can make sure the good stuff out there gets noticed and more writers get themselves a well-earned career. Power to the people!


Don’t be a dick online

There’s been a lot of debate recently about how people comport themselves online. There are stories of teachers losing their job for complaining about students, other people losing jobs for complaining about said job, or their boss. Lovers discovering spouses and vice versa. Seriously, it’s a minefield out there. But that’s just life. I’m more interested in the persona someone puts out there when they’re some form of public figure, even a very minor one. Obviously, from my point of view, I’m most interested in writers, editors, publishers and so on. It seems that a lot of the time those people can be real dicks online and it can only damage their careers. I got to thinking about this after I wrote a fairly poor review of Unimagined by Imran Ahmad. Ahmad himself came along and left a comment that did some serious damage to his reputation among people that would otherwise have never thought badly of him. Some people even said they wouldn’t buy his book now, after the author “waded in with his ego-hammer”. You can read that post and all associated comments here.

I spend a lot of time online. I know, that’s really no surprise to anyone. But during that time I’ve seen a lot of people make serious asshats of themselves, for no real reason. Your personality online is very important. If you’re a writer and you want people to read your stuff, you’ll get more fans if those people feel like they know you. It’s one of the many things about this changing world of publishing. Back in the day you could be a complete shit, utterly sociopathic, but no one would know. If you wrote good stuff and no one ever saw you, you’d just be reclusive or eccentric. These days, with everyone online, people like to know a bit about the author behind the book. As far as I’m concerned, the best way to manage that is just to be yourself. Unless you actually are a dick, of course, but then you’ve got bigger problems anyway.

Not everyone is going to like you. I think that’s something we need to accept from an early age, regardless of what we do. Some people are just not going to dig you, just like there are some people you simply don’t like. If you’re being yourself and you’re happy in your skin, fuck ’em. You don’t need to please everyone. It’s the same if you’re an author with books that you’d like people to read. Not everyone will like your books and not everyone will like you, but if you’re open and honest with your personality online, then the people that do like you will follow you, read your stuff, interact with you. If you have any sense, you’ll interact right back.

To use myself as an example, I swear a lot. Yeah, I know, it’s a shock to many, but it’s true. I believe that words and language are seriously powerful things, but I also think that swearing is an unneccessarily heightened taboo. That’s partly just rationalising my constant swearing, but fuck it. I don’t care. It’s how I am in real life, so I don’t pretend to be different online. I’m always getting in trouble with parents because I inadvertantly swear around their children. I do my best not to, but I’m not very good at it. I’m also opinionated, I don’t suffer fools, I call out the willfully ignorant, I can’t stand injustice or bullying or hypocrisy and I’ll challenge it every time I come face to face with it. That’s just how I am in real life, so that’s how I am online as well. But I try not to be a dick about it. It gets me in trouble, but so be it.

I like to have a laugh with it too. I’ll be deliberately controversial and antagonistic to get a debate going and to interact. I’ll question people to test their conviction. It’s fun, it’s interaction and it’s part of who I am. But, again, I try not to be a complete arse about it. I still want to be a good guy, that people are interested in and entertained by. I want to be liked, same as everyone.

But while I’ll be open and honest about who I am as often as possible, there are some things I’ll keep to myself, because they’re not right for open public consumption. Particularly, I won’t bitch and moan about people to vent my frustrations. I won’t rant and rave when I get a bad review. Other people are as entitled to their opinions as I am. Like Imran Ahmad coming onto the blog here and whining about a bad review, it would only damage my reputation. Not just my reputation generally, but with other professionals in my field – other writers, but also editors and publishers. If I went online and ranted on about some shitty rejection I’d had from so-and-so publisher that didn’t know their arse from their elbow, that rant would DEFINITELY get back to them. (Of course, I have nothing but respect for all the great editors and publishers out there – I’m just talking hypothetically. Honest.) But it works the other way too. Sometimes editors will rant on about some fuckwit writer they’ve had to deal with and that writer WILL hear about it. The nature of Twitter and Facebook and blogs and all that stuff is that everybody knows everybody in some connection. There are certainly not six degrees of seperation any more. Sometimes there’s not even one.

If you have someone you want to bitch and moan about, or a particular company or group you have the shits with, or a review or rejection that really pissed you off, ring a friend. Email a personal mate that understands. Do your venting in the privacy of an enclosed group. When you put that stuff out there online IT’S THERE FOREVER. You might delete it, but it’s already cached. Whenever you say anything online, ask yourself if you really want it out there forever and for everyone to read, because that’s what you’re doing. Careers can crash and burn before they’re started sometimes, because a person flags themselves as a nightmare to work with by the way they act online. This is especially true of newbies in the writing world, that haven’t thickened their skin yet. Because seriously, people, you need the skin of an old elephant to survive with your ego intact in this game.

Be yourself, interact with others, let people in on your personality and your style, your standards and ethics if you like. But don’t be a twat. People want to get to know you and with the internet the way it is we’re all part of one massive community. Which is awesome – I love it, I really dig being part of this great big cyber love-in and everyone needs to embrace it these days. But like the title of the post says, don’t be a dick online.


Fun with Google Ngrams

There’s this thing Google have put together which is really addictive. It’s called Ngrams. Essentially, when you enter phrases into the Google Books Ngram Viewer, it displays a graph showing how those phrases have occurred in a corpus of books. You can set various parametres of time, which types/language of books are searched and so on. The graphic results are very cool.

For example, instances of the words horse (blue), bicycle (red), car (green) and motorcycle (yellow), between 1800 and 2008, in English:

(click for larger images)

Pretty cool, huh. So naturally I started searching all kinds of comparisons. Regular readers here will know I’m fascinated with religious mythology, so I did a search on instances of Christian (blue), Muslim (red), Jew (green), Hindu (yellow) and Buddhist (blue), again from 1800 to 2008 in English. Look at the massive decline in Christianity’s dominance over the written word in that time.

On that front, what about instances of heaven (blue) and hell (red):

Hell holding steady while heaven sees a steep decline. This amuses me.

All right, enough of this nonsense, let’s get onto the serious stuff. Between 1800 and 2008, let’s look at instances of fantasy (blue), science fiction (red) and horror (green):

Sci-fi doesn’t register until around 1950, fantasy has a slow growth right through, really peaking in the last thirty or forty years and horror saw a steady decline until a resurgence around 1980. I imagine that’s largely down to the pulp horror revival of the 80s and the emergence of superstars in the genre like Stephen King and James Herbert.

So the natural progression from there is to see which is really the most popular when it comes to the big three supernaturals. Here we have vampire (blue), werewolf (red) and zombie (green):

Relatively even, though vampires clearly more popular, till around the early 80s, then the vamps went nuts. Anne Rice, Lost Boys and the like are clearly marked there.

But that was an easy one – of course the vampire is the most popular, as it is the coolest. Though I predict the werewolf has yet to really see its heyday. But now let’s sort out once and for all the ongoing rivalry that all SF fans get heated about. I should start by saying that I’m a big fan of both. But what says Ngrams in the great Star Wars (blue) vs Star Trek (red), in English since 1960:

Jedis FTW!

Man, I could play with this thing all day.


Keywords and phrases so far this year

It’s been a while since I did one of these posts and they’re fun, so I thought it time for another. Using Google Analytics, I keep track of the various hits to my website here. I can track what are the popular posts, how long people stick around, where they come from and so on. One of the most entertaining things to be found is the keywords and key phrases search results. This lists all the words and phrases that people have used in a search (on Google or Yahoo! or whatever) that has led them to this website. It’s always fun to see what people are searching for and what subsequently leads them to my humble online abode. Incidentally, I can’t learn anything personal about these people from these searches – it’s purely statistical, so don’t think I’m secretly spying on readers like a perv at a school playground.

Anyway, here are a bunch of search words and phrases that caught my eye, either because I found them interesting or funny. This is only over the past month, so that in itself is quite fascinating. I’ve copied the search words into this post as images, so as not to upset the balance in future posts. If you can’t see them in your reader, click through to this actual site and you’ll see it all.

Firstly, by far the most common word leading people to this site is:

That makes me kinda proud. It also pleases me that, even now, so many people are still seeking the Great Old Ones. Seriously, this word outguns all other searches by a factor of hundreds. I also saw this as generating a lot of results.

I didn’t know what it said, but it looked like Russian. So I asked my Russian friend and he said:

Doesn’t look like a word but when I sound it out it’s (or at least a Russified version) – it also tripped me up because it has some very similar sounds to some swear words so it sounds like a swearword in Russian!

You can probably imagine how happy that made me.

Another very common search was this one, both ways around:

This would have landed people here purely because of the post I wrote in September last year about International Blasphemy Day and Banned Books Week.

Another common search hit was:

And variations thereof. This one is because of a post from December 2008 that generated more debate and comment than this site has seen before or since. I had to close the comments after it got way too out of hand. But if you haven’t seen it yet, check out what happens when you bad mouth real life super heroes.

This one always makes me laugh and always makes these posts:

Seriously, people? I mean, really?

Then things get a bit weird. I don’t know why this search landed the person here:

I’m also appalled that a person had to search for this term, and I wonder why a person would search for it online?

Then we go to the surreal:

If anyone knows what this means, please tell me! It is an anagram of dark short, and I do have a page of short stories here called Dark Shorts, so there’s some connection there. But I still have no idea why that particular phrase would be searched for.

On this next one, do you think they mean “endearing” or are they trying to hold a facial expression throughout:

Why search for this? It can’t require much training:

This one is all kinds of weird:

Now, I know this next bloke is a god among men when it comes to being a speculative fiction writer, but does the man have his own commas now? Has he developed a personal style of punctuation?

Lastly, I feel very sorry for this person, that they had to search for this. Their online shopping experiences must have been very uncomfortable up until now:

So there you go. There’s some insight into the kind of things that land random people here at The Word. Those were a select few from over a thousand search hits just from the last month. Seriously, the internet is one whacky place.


Culturomics – 500 billion words start a trend

My brother-in-law sent me this one from the New York Times (thanks Ade!) and it blew me away. I’m guessing that people already know about the controversial project by Google to digitise every book in the world. If you don’t, it’s easy to find out a bit about it. Just Google it. *sigh*

Now, from that effort, a huge, and I mean monstrously, giganto-huge, database has been made from nearly 5.2 million digitised books. That database is now available to the public for free downloads and online searches. Before you panic that every book ever written is now available for free (which is what a lot of people fear) take a moment to understand the nature of the database. It consists of the 500 billion words contained in books published between 1500 and 2008 in English, French, Spanish, German, Chinese and Russian. That word-mine comprises words and short phrases as well as a year-by-year count of how often they appear. The potential use for this in cultural studies and humanities is mind-boggling.

“The goal is to give an 8-year-old the ability to browse cultural trends throughout history, as recorded in books,” said Erez Lieberman Aiden, a junior fellow at the Society of Fellows at Harvard. He calls this method of mass, high speed analysis “culturomics”: the application of high-throughput data collection and analysis to the study of human culture.

There are those that have reservations about the efficacy of the project and those that question the team involved, suugesting that not all the right kind of experts are represented. But you always get that among academics. They can be a bitchy bunch.

The New York Times article closes with this gem:

The warehouse of words makes it possible to analyze cultural influences statistically in a way previously not possible. Cultural references tend to appear in print much less frequently than everyday words, said Mr. Michel, whose expertise is in applied math and systems biology. An accurate picture needs a huge sample. Checking if “sasquatch” has infiltrated the culture requires a supply of at least a billion words a year, he said.

Read the whole article for a much clearer idea of what’s happening. There are links in the article to the full Science journal paper (available free to everyone, although you have to register) and an online tool to search the Google database for the use of any particular word or phrase over time. I can see myself wasting a lot of time with this.