Genre fiction and the advancing world

I’ve jumped into this one at the last minute, so a bit short notice, but if you’re anywhere near Sydney you might want to come along. I’ll be giving a talk at the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts about Genre fiction and the advancing world. The talk is open to the public and free, so you can’t really go wrong. Here’s the blurb:

Many of the most popular novels today are genre fiction.

Covering everything from historical romance, hard-boiled crime and science fiction, through to urban fantasy and horror, genre writing is sometimes the victim of literary snobbery. But is that fair?

Alan Baxter, an author and independent publisher, will talk about what genre writing is and what it entails.

He will also explore how writing and publishing in all forms is changing in today’s rapidly advancing world, and what that means for a genre writer in the modern arena.

It’s on Tuesday, 7th August 2012, 12:30pm – 1:30pm, in the Mitchell Theatre. All the details here.


EWF Presentation: On responding to reviews and social media etiquette

This past weekend I had the honour of presenting at the Emerging Writers’ Festival, down in Melbourne. As ever, it was an inspiring and entertaining weekend, and it continues on for the next week. All the details here.

The panel I was involved with was all about Post Publication; what to do and what to expect after you’ve got that elusive first publication. I spoke a bit about how to respond (or not) to criticism of your work and a little bit about social media etiquette. As ever when I present, I strayed a bit from the script. I learned long ago that I’m not much good at sticking to the presentation I write and I tend to get distracted and freestyle my way to the end. But I think I pretty much covered all the stuff I’d planned to talk about.

I thought it might be worthwhile to post my presentation here, as a recap for those at the festival and as something hopefully useful for everyone else. Bear in mind that this isn’t an actual article, but more a series of points as reference for verbal delivery, so it’ll be a bit choppy. I’ve tidied it up a bit into a more coherent (I hope) blog post. I hope you find it interesting.

EWF 2012 Presentation

I’m going to talk about making the right noises. Or, more importantly, not making the wrong noises.

So you’re published and you should be very proud of yourself for many reasons, not least of which being that you had the guts to put your work out there in the public eye.

Where it will be judged.

Where you will be judged.

So what are you going to do about that?


That, at least, is your default position.

If you think about saying something in response to someone’s critique of your work, stop and think. Double think. Do you want what you say to be out there forever, and forever gilding your career. Because it will be. Even if you delete it, it’s cached. And people will have shared it.

It’s a given these days that if you’re published in any form, it behoves you and your publisher if you have a social media presence.

Right now, you don’t have to have an online presence, but it benefits you enormously if you do. I would argue that before long a writer will have to have an online presence.

The reason we need that is primarily due to noise.

I’m loathe to use the often-touted term author platform, because I think that carries all kinds of unnecessary connotations, so I’m just going to refer to it from here on as “the presence”.

I’m a horror writer, among other things, so standing up here to talking a room full of people about The Presence amuses me.

There are various social areas of engagement: micro- and macro-arenas, if you like. This here, a room of people, is actually a micro-arena of social engagement.

You could conceivably interact with pretty much every one here over the course of a day or two, in small group conversations, the occasional one on one chat in a queue, perhaps an awkward, strangely polite few words beside each other at urinals or adjoining cubicles. It’s not intimate – well, the urinal thing might be, but overall, this event is not especially intimate, but it is micro.

This is where things have changed. This used to be the macro-arena. An event like this over several days or even weeks, used to be the biggest interaction a person could have. Not any more.

Now we have the internet.

Something like today, this event, has become a micro-arena because the mother of all macro-arenas now exists.

The thing about this relatively new super-macro-arena of social engagement is that it’s hectic. You want The Presence, your presence, to be there, because if you have your work out in the world, you need people to know about it and the internet is brilliant for that..

But getting noticed in that digital maelstrom is like trying to have a civilised chat at a heavy metal gig. And you need to make the right noise. Don’t be noticed for the wrong reasons.

There’s an old Chinese proverb – The empty vessel makes the most noise.

The usual example is a jar of beans. If there are only a few beans in it and you shake it around, it makes a huge racket.

Fill it to the brim with beans, shake it and it’s pretty much silent.

Of course, the point here is that you achieve through quality content – being a full jar – and you get noticed that way, rather than only having a few beans and shaking your jar as loudly as you can.

Sadly, the internet often favours those with few beans and a vigorous shaking arm.

We all have to play in that sandpit. And it can get pretty crappy in there.

While we’re busily filling our jar with beans and trying to make people notice it, all the other people out there will be judging us and our work.

And not everyone will like our stuff and through the unfiltered ease of the internet, they’ll tell us so.

I’m sure you’ve all seen someone immolate their career in a furnace of righteous outrage when they get a bad review, thereby getting noticed by making all the wrong noises. If you haven’t, you will now, because you’ll go looking for it. There’s plenty to choose from. (Edit: There’s a small one right here at The Word.)

And so, when you and your work are judged online:


Here’s a freebie for you. Got a notebook? Write this down. The only response you should ever give to anyone who reviews your work, if you give any response at all, is this:

Thank you very much for taking the time to read and review my work.

That’s it. Nothing else.

If they called you a talentless hack whose work should be used in high school as an example of how not to write, you respond:

Thank you very much for taking the time to read and review my work.

That’s if you respond at all. You don’t have to. You can simply let everyone else do the talking. Of course, if they’re nice to you, you can thank them for that, though again, you don’t have to.

But you must never respond negatively. Never try to defend your work or get drawn into an argument with someone over their review.

It’s their opinion and they’re entitled to it, even if they’re clearly a brain dead slug who wouldn’t recognise quality literature if it rolled them in salt.

Never get caught up in shitfights about opinion.

Engage with social media, use The Presence to draw attention to your stuff, but don’t always and only talk about your work. If you’re constantly on the hard sell, people will quickly tire of your used car salesman persona and ignore you. Talk about all kinds of stuff, engage and interact, but never negatively, and occasionally mention your work among all that.

If you try to present yourself as something you’re not, if you act like a dick, regardless of how good your work might be, people won’t want to work with you or read you.

It’s just like real life. Act online like you would face to face and you’re off to a pretty good start. Unless you actually are a dick, of course. There’s no help for you then.

My philosophy when it comes to social media engagement is four simple points, and I’ll wrap this up with them:

• Be yourself;
• Don’t be a dick;
• Promote the good stuff;
• Ignore the crap and the negative.

Keep working on filling your jar with beans and doing your best to make sure people know about it, without constantly beating them over the cyber-head with it.

Everything else takes care of itself.


Neil Gaiman and the $45,000 appearance fee

My friend Michael made me aware of this news over at Boing Boing. It’s since caused a fair stir, with opinions all over the interwebz. So I thought, what kind of writer or blogger am I if I don’t weigh in too? Basically there’s been outrage that Neil Gaiman would charge $45,000 for an appearance fee. In the Boing Boing article they cite Gaiman’s FAQ which offers this explanation:

Q. How can I get Neil Gaiman to make an appearance at my school/convention/event?

A. Contact Lisa Bransdorf at the Greater Talent Network. Tell her you want Neil to appear somewhere. Have her tell you how much it costs. Have her say it again in case you misheard it the first time. Tell her you could get Bill Clinton for that money. Have her tell you that you couldn’t even get ten minutes of Bill Clinton for that money but it’s true, he’s not cheap.

On the other hand, I’m really busy, and I ought to be writing, so pricing appearances somewhere between ridiculously high and obscenely high helps to discourage most of the people who want me to come and talk to them. Which I could make a full time profession, if I didn’t say ‘no’ a lot.

I think it’s important to remember that Gaiman is an author. He writes awesome fiction that has millions of fans around the world. That’s what he’s famous for, that’s what he’s clearly very, very good at and that’s what his fans expect of him. Gaiman is also an incredibly hard working writer when it comes to tours and promotions. I don’t think there’s a harder working writer in the business and his success is at least in part due to this commitment to promote his work. And Gaiman doesn’t always charge his fee – there are things he’ll do for free as part of that commitment.

Any writer will tell you that marketing and promotion are harder work and take more time than the actual writing process. That’s as true for a relative nobody like me as it is for a giant like Gaiman. On his website, Neil has further commented on the issue. The key point of that post for me was this:

The main reason I got a speaking agency, ten years ago, was because too many requests for me to come and speak were coming in. And the speaking requests were, and are, a distraction from what I ought to be doing, which is writing. So rather than say no, we’ve always priced me high. Not Tony Blair high, or Sarah Palin high (last time I read about them, they’re about $400,000 and $150,000 respectively). But I’m at the top end of what it costs to bring an author who should be home writing and does not really want a second career as a public speaker to your event.

So if you want to pay me to come in and talk, it’s expensive.

Cory Doctorow weighed in on the Boing Boing post with an long, interesting comment that ended with this:

Anyone who asks me to leave the continent for a talk gets a friendly, hand-written, personal note explaining that I can only do this for a ridiculous amount of money; that I’ll consider lowering my fee a little if they can’t make it, and that I’ll cheerfully add their institution or group to the list of people to come speak at for free the next time paid work brings me to their neck of the world (I pay someone to keep track of this).

And then, like Neil, I do a ton of free talking: I’ll do sf conventions where I’m guest of honor for free (of course); I don’t charge any of my publishers to tour with my books (of course — but this takes me to 4 or 5 countries a year for a month or two’s worth of travel); I do EFF, ORG, and other civil liberties groups’ events for free (of course). I also attend one or two professional events at my own expense every year and speak for free (of course), such as the WorldCon.

All told, I probably spend a little more time on on the road than I would truly like to, maybe 20-30%. But most of the time I really enjoy seeing people, talking about stuff I care about, raising money for causes I support, etc. It’s a fun deal. That said, I also dearly want to spend more time at my desk and more time with my family. Like everything in life, there’s a trade-off, and I’m thankful every day that I’m lucky enough to have a trade-off between two such pleasurable alternatives.

So before people start railing at Gaiman for being a prima donna or for acting like a superstar, it’s best to get all the facts. The truth is that Gaiman is a superstar and he’s in high demand. He’s also really busy, always touring and appearing and, fundamentally, should be writing. I’d rather get more writing from Gaiman and less touring around, but I’m selfish like that.

It would certainly be amazing to be in a position to not only have Gaiman’s literary success, but also his profile which gives him such clout and allows him to earn enormous sums of money. It’s encouraging to all us starving artists out here. But let’s give Neil the last word on all this and it’ll show what a bollocks storm in a teacup it all really is:

I was asked if I’d come and talk at Stillwater, and be paid $40,000. I said, “That’s an awful lot of money for a little library.”

“It’s not from the library. It’s from the Legacy Fund, a Minnesota tax allocation that allows the library to pay market rates to bring authors to suburban libraries who otherwise wouldn’t be able to bring them in. They have to use the money now as it won’t roll over to next year and expires next month.”


Well, that seemed fairly simple. They’d already booked a number of other authors. They had the money sitting there and were happy to pay me my rack rate. Either they gave the money to me or it went away – it couldn’t be used for anything else. And, most importantly, the dates worked. Another week and I would have had to say no, as I would have been away writing. But I got in from Chicago that morning. I said yes.

I figure money like that, sort of out-of-the-blue windfall money, is best used for Good Deeds, so I let a couple of small and needy charities (one doing social work, the other library/book based) know that I would be passing the money on to them, after agents had taken their commission, and did not think twice about it.

More power to your elbow, Mr Gaiman. Keep doing what you’re doing.


Society of Editors guest speaker

Last night I travelled up to Sydney as I’d been invited, along with Bill Congreve, to be a guest speaker at the NSW Society Of Editors meeting. The event started badly. As I live an hour and half’s drive from Sydney, I always try to combine any errands when I do go up there. So I left two hours early with a several things to do around town before the meeting.

I got twenty minutes up the road and the traffic on the freeway was standing still. After a little while it began to crawl. And it continued to crawl for two hours. Turns out, according to local radio, that a pedestrian was killed on the freeway and they shut it down, diverting us all through the suburbs. What the fuck a pedestrian was doing on the freeway I have no idea. Either it’s a very sad accident or a suicide. If it’s a suicide then the selfish bastard has a lot to answer for – not just causing hours of traffic mayhem, but making some poor driver live the rest of their life with the knowledge they’ve killed someone. But I’m speculating, so who knows what happened. It might turn out yet that local radio grabbed a story and ran with it when the truth is that a cat caused a dump truck to roll over and no one was hurt. Not even the cat. Who knows.

All of which is completely irrelevant. It basically destroyed the extra time I’d left for errands and a one and a half hour journey took three and half hours. Fortunately, even though no errands were run, I did make it just in time for the meeting. Where there were sandwiches, so things started looking up immediately.

They’d invited us to bring along some books to show and sell, which Bill took very seriously. It was like a trader’s table at a con. I’d only brought a handful of books with me and felt like quite the underachiever sitting next to Bill. Then again, Bill’s been a publisher and a writer for a lot longer than me, so no surprise he has more wares to hawk. Someone on Twitter posted this photo after the event. It looks a bit like I’m trying to establish who made a horrible smell and Bill’s top suspect is me.

I think it was probably Abigail Nathan that took the photo. Own up if you’re reading, Abi!

For the talk Bill and I had been asked to cover a lot of ground – speculative fiction in general, the nature of the Australian spec fic scene, the movement in digital publishing, particularly small press and genre publishers (given that Bill and I are both writers and publishers in the scene). We kept the talk casual and encouraged people there to ask questions along the way. I always prefer that kind of informal talk to a more fixed presentation followed by Q & A. Especially with two of us, both of whom can crap for hours about one tiny trivia detail about spec fic.

It was a very enjoyable evening. I think Bill and I did cover a fair amount of ground and while it seemed like we just waffled for an hour, people were coming up to us afterwards and claiming they’d enjoyed it and learned some stuff. So either we did an okay job or NSW editors are a very polite bunch. It’s probably a bit of both.

And they gave us wine, so that’s raised my appreciation for editors even more. As a writer you do learn to appreciate an editor. Early in my writing life I felt, as most writers probably do, that editors are out to homogenise your work, rip out your voice and exercise their own frustrated writer angst on someone else. As you go along this writing journey you soon come to realise that editors are usually very good at what they do, love what they do and invariably make a story better with their insight. Sitting in front of a room full of editors didn’t feel like being on the wrong side of the glass at the tiger enclosure at all. It was a nice place to be and everyone there was very friendly.

More power to the editors that make us writers look better than we actually are! I’d like to thank the Society for inviting me and Bill along.