Monthly Archives: October 2012

Gawker, Reddit, Free Speech and Such

I’ve been watching with some interest the drama surrounding Gawker writer Adrian Chen revealing Reddit user/celeb/moderator/troll Violentacrez’s real life identity (Michael Brutsch), which among other things resulted in Brutsch losing his job, presumably because Brutsch’s employer was not 100% comfortable employing someone who spent his days moderating online forums with titles like “Chokeabitch” and bragged about the time his 19-year-old stepdaughter performed oral sex on him. It also resulted in Reddit globally banning links from Gawker (since rescinded, although forum moderators (“subredditors”) can choose to block links within their forums — and do), and various bannings due to discussion of the drama.

Wrapped up in all of this are various chest beatings about free speech and whether someone’s online anonymity is sacred, even if he is a creep, the culture of Reddit in particular and the Internet in general, and in a larger sense where the rights of one individual — say, a creepy middle-aged dude — begin to impinge on others — say, young women who don’t believe that merely being in public is an invitation to be sexually degraded. This is all interesting stuff, to be sure, and naturally I have a few thoughts on these topics. In no particular order:

1. The “free speech” aspect of this is largely nonsense. Reddit is not a public utility or a public square; it’s a privately owned space on the Internet. From a legal and (United States) constitutional point of view, people who post on Reddit have no “free speech” privileges; they have what speech privileges Reddit itself chooses to provide them, and to tolerate. Reddit chooses to tolerate creepiness and general obnoxiousness for reasons of its own, in other words, and not because there’s a legal or constitutional reason for it.

Personally speaking, when everything is boiled down to the marrow, I think the reason Reddit tolerates the creepy forums has to do with money more than anything else. Reddit allows all those creepy subreddits because its business model is built on memberships and visits, and the dudes who visit these subreddits are almost certainly enthusiastic members and visitors. This is a perfectly valid reason, in the sense of “valid” meaning “allowing people to be creepy isn’t inherently illegal, and we make money because of it, so we’ll let it happen.” But while it makes sense that the folks at Reddit are either actively or passively allowing “we’re making money allowing creeps to get their creep on” to be muddled with “we’re standing up for the principles of free speech,” it doesn’t mean anyone else needs be confused by this.

If someone bleats to you about any of this being a “free speech” issue, you can safely mark them as either ignorant or pernicious — probably ignorant, as the understanding of what “free speech” means in a constitutional sense here in the US is, shall we say, highly constrained in the general population. Additionally and independently, the sort of person who who says “free speech” when they mean “I like doing creepy things to other people without their consent and you can’t stop me so fuck you ha ha ha ha” is pretty clearly a mouth-breathing asshole who in the larger moral landscape deserves a bat across the bridge of the nose and probably knows it. Which is why — unsurprisingly — so many of them choose to be anonymous and/or use pseudonyms on Reddit while they get their creep on.

On the subject of anonymity:

2. Anonymity/pseudonymity is not inherently evil or wrong. Astute observers will note that on this very site I allow both anonymous and pseudonymous postings, because sometimes you want to say something you wouldn’t normally say with your name attached and/or because you have personal/business reasons to want not to have a trail of comments lead back to you. Perfectly reasonable and perfectly acceptable, and as I moderate this site pretty attentively, anyone who decides to use the cloak of anonymity to be an assbag will get their words malleted into oblivion in any event.

It’s not anonymity or pseudonymity that’s the issue. The issue is people being assholes while anonymous because they don’t believe it’s ever going to get back to them. This is a separate issue from anonymity/pseudonymity. Someone who is anonymous shouldn’t be assumed to be an assbag, any more than someone who uses their real name should be assumed to be a kind and decent human being. In both cases, it’s what they say that should be the guide.

However:

3. If at this point in Internet history you think you’re really anonymous/pseudonymous on the Internet, or that you have a right to anonymity/pseudonymity on the Internet, you’re kind of stupid. Yes, stupid, and there’s no other way to put it. I remember back in 1998 and people with pseudonymous online diaries freaking out because they ranted about a family member or boss online, and then that person found out, and as a result the diarist was fired and/or had very awkward Thanksgivings for several years. And you know what? Even back in 1998, when the Web was still reasonably new, while one could be sympathetic, in the back of the head there was always well, what did you expect? It’s not that hard to find things out. Something will give you away sooner or later. Here in 2012, if you’re going to make an argument to me that anonymity truly exists on the Web, I’m going to want you to follow up with an explanation of how the Easter Bunny is riding unicorns on Mars with Kurt Cobain.

I find it difficult to believe that Redditors don’t understand that anonymity online is merely a facade; indeed it’s probably one of the reasons that revealing the identity of pseudonymous Redditors is looked on as such a huge betrayal. That said, anyone who goes to Reddit and truly believes that a site-standard ethos of “don’t reveal our members’ identities” fully protects them from being revealed or allows them to revel in obnoxious and/or creepy behavior without fear of discovery, they’re kind of dumb. I won’t say that they deserve what they get — maybe they do, maybe they don’t — but I will say they shouldn’t be terribly surprised.

Now, you might argue that someone has a right to pseudonymity or anonymity online, and depending on your argument, I might even agree with you (hint: such an argument doesn’t involve posting sexualized pictures of minors or the unconsenting). But I would also agree with you that it would be cool if the Mars rover beamed back a picture of Kurt and Peter Cottontail jamming on “Pennyroyal Tea” while their unicorns kept the time on tambourine. Back here in the real world, you should get used to the idea neither is happening soon.

Speaking of the real world:

4.  Reddit is not the Internet, the Internet is not Reddit, and in neither place is one obliged to privilege anonymity/pseudonymity. It seems like a lot of the angst emanating from Reddit regarding this event is based on a presumed community standard of not outing anonymous or pseudonymous Reddit users. However, leaving aside the fact that this “community standard” is found neither in the Rules of Reddit nor its “Reddiquette” document (Update: Redditors have pointed out that I missed places where a ban on outing personal information this was noted, which is a fair call; I was looking for statements relating specifically to anonymity/pseudonymity and focused on those words), just because something is a community standard does not mean one is obliged to follow it in all ways at all times, and if the “community standard” is doing real harm or is being used as a shield to allow people to act badly without consequence, then it’s a reasonable question of whether this “standard” is to be allowed to stand unchallenged.

In any event, an argument that those outside the community are bound to its standards is a tough one to make outside of that community. Am I, John Scalzi, enjoined by Reddit “community standards” on my own site? Not in the least, and if anyone suggested I was, I would point and laugh at them. Am I when I am on Reddit, signed into my Reddit account (“Scalzi,” which, I would note, is not particularly anonymous/pseudonymous)? Well, I’m enjoined by the actual rules (seeing as I have no right to free speech as understood by the US Constitution while I am there), and generally would try to abide by established local practices. But there are rules and then there are guidelines, and I don’t need to believe that the latter has the force of the former.

In the case of Adrian Chen, the Gawker writer who revealed Violentacrez’s real-life identity, I think he’s perfectly justified in doing so. Whether certain denizens of Reddit like it or not, Chen was practicing journalism, and writing a story of a figure of note (and of notoriety) on one of the largest and most influential sites on the Internet. They may believe that Mr. Brutsch should have an expectation not to have his real life identity revealed on Gawker, but the question to ask here is “why?” Why should that be the expectation? How does an expectation of pseudonymity on a Web site logically extend to an expectation of pseudonymity in the real world? How does one who beats his chest for the right of free speech on a Web site (where in fact he has no free speech rights) and to have that right to free speech include the posting of pictures of women who did not consent to have their pictures taken or posted then turn around and criticize Gawker for pursuing an actually and legitimately constitutionally protected exercise of the free press, involving a man who has no legal or ethical presumption of anonymity or pseudonymity in the real world? How do you square one with the other? Well, you can’t, or at least I can’t; I have no doubt some of the folks at Reddit can guide that particular camel through the eye of the needle.

But they would be wrong. Mr. Brutsch’s actions are newsworthy, and it’s neither libel nor defamation for Gawker to correctly attribute his actions to him, whether or not he ever expected them to be attached to his real life identity. If they don’t think so, I heartily encourage them to take up a collection for Mr. Brutsch so he can sue Gawker. I know what the result would be, but I think the path to getting there might be instructive to some Redditors.

Or maybe (and hopefully) they already know they don’t have a legal or ethical leg to stand on, which is why they eventually fall back on well, this just isn’t done and then ban Gawker links on Reddit. Which, of course, is their right. That is, so long as the people actually running Reddit believe it is.

Update 10/18: A follow up post.

The Humble eBook Bundle Expands

It’s been a week since the Humble eBook Bundle has come out and in that time over 50,000 bundles have been bought with sale of over $660,000. That’s very awesome, but now the Bundle is becoming even more awesomer because it’s adding five additional books by four of the Internet’s favorite cartoonists: Randall Munroe (xkcd), Zach Weiner (Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal) and Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik (Penny Arcade). All you have to do to get three five extra books is pay more than the average amount for the bundle (currently $12.87).

If you’ve already paid more than the average, as I understand it, these books are unlocked. If you want these books but already paid, you can go back and pay a little more to get yourself above the average price. $12.87 for thirteen books is a pretty sweet deal, y’all. And remember that a chunk of these Humble Bundles go to Child’s Play, SFWA, and the EFF, worthy non-profits and charities all.

Oh, and as a reminder, yes, Old Man’s War is still in the bundle (if you pay more than the average amount). And still a fine read, I say.

A Shocking Disclosure I Disclose To Shock You

I don’t drink coffee, because it tastes of ass, but about once a week I will go to the local gas station and pick up a coffee-based liquid substance. The one you see here is about sixty percent their English Toffee latte and forty percent their French Vanilla latte, combined in a single cup. It comes out of a vending machine rather than made by a tattooed disaffected barista/o, and it tastes absolutely nothing like coffee — it tastes, in point of fact, like a liquid Heath bar, which is why I drink it. This is why I have no problem saying that I don’t drink coffee: This isn’t coffee, although some aspect of coffee may lurk within, utterly drowned out by the toffee and vanilla and sugar experience.

The fact that I enjoy my gas station vending machine coffee-related liquid candy experience more than I enjoy a genuinely excellently handcrafted coffee beverage that actually tastes of coffee will no doubt shock and horrify coffee purists and enthusiasts, but I am all right with that. I celebrate their coffee snobbery, I’m just glad I don’t have it. My total coffee-related expenditures come to $1.19 once a week versus three times that on a daily basis, and I think that’s about right.

Anyway, it’s fine to judge me on this. I don’t mind. I delight in it, in fact.

A Week’s Worth of Book Arrivals

I’ve noted before that during the average week I will get somewhere between 10 and 40 books sent to me, which is a figure some people have treated with either amazement or skepticism. So to illustrate the point, here’s a week worth of printed matter, sent to me by various publishers between last Tuesday (when I left home) and today (when I got back). It’s 33 books. And it doesn’t count the three books I actually bought this last week (Mark Helprin’s In Sunlight and in Shadow, the new Jacqueline Carey (for Krissy, who is a fan) and Bud Sparhawk’s Vixen), and the four I was given as gifts at Capclave.

Books! They’re awesome.

Also, if you want a better look at the individual titles, here’s a bigger picture of the haul. There are some excellent titles in here. Tell me in the comments which ones are catching your eye.

 

And Thus Are All My Revels Ended

I am being slightly precipitate about this, considering that I am writing this in the B terminal of the Detroit airport rather than at home. Nevertheless: With Capclave — at which I had a wonderful time — behind me, I have now concluded all my official travel for 2012. I have no more conventions or events, and nothing official on my 2013 calendar (other than the Nebula Awards Weekend next May) for reasons I have already discussed here on the site. I have some things I am considering for 2014, but haven’t made any decisions about them yet, so for the moment, with the exception of the Nebs, and for the first time literally in years, I don’t have anywhere I’ll have to be going to at any point in the future.

It feels a little weird.

And it also feels good, at the moment at least. As I’ve noted before I’ve been traveling an average of a week out of every month for the last two and a half years, and the knock-on effects of travel, in terms of writing and personal equilibrium, have been been increasingly noticeable to me. I look at the vast expanse of my calendar, with nothing in it, and see the potential to write more, and to write different stuff. That appeals to me right now. It’s like getting an extra week each month to do things. And don’t we all want a little more time?

(Mind you, there’s also that part of my brain which goes if you don’t go places they will forget about yooooooooooooou; it’s the same part of my brain, several years ago, that worried that if I turned down the work I simply had no time in my schedule for, that no one would ever give me work again. The brain is a paranoid thing, and I say to it: Brain, I love you, but calm the hell down.)

To everyone who I’ve seen in the last couple of years: Thank you for coming out to see me, wherever it is that you and I were together. I will definitely try to see you again. Just probably not in 2013. I hope you’re okay with that.

 

My Other Guest of Honor Gift at Capclave

This is very cool: A hand-blown ornament showing a green-skinned alien taking aim at a redshirt (who has the head of a dodo, because Capclave’s mascot is a dodo bird, to go with their motto, “Capclave, where reading is not extinct!” Fellow guest of honor Nick Mamatas also received a hand-blown ornament, his having Cthulhu in it. Not the actual Cthulhu, mind you. That would be disturbing. But a hand-blown glass representation.

Yesterday’s events went very well, I have to say. All my panels and presentations went very well, and folks who came to my reading seemed to enjoy the snippets of The Human Division I read to them, including one part which I had not read out loud to anyone before, so it was a Capclave debut and (so far, at least) exclusive. See? This is what happens when you show up where I am. You get special treats.

Today will be a relatively relaxing day at the con for me because I don’t have any specific events; I’ll just be loitering about and saying hello (and, as it is the last day of the convention, also goodbye) to folks. If you’re at the con and seeing this, remember to say hello (or goodbye) to me today. If you’re not at the convention and reading this, weep for what could have been between us. That is all.

More Old Man’s War Movie News

Because I know you’re interested!

Here’s the latest.

And before you ask, yes, it’s fairly normal to have one writer do rewrites on a script another has done a first pass on, and yes, it’s a good thing for the movie, since they wouldn’t have someone doing rewrites if they weren’t continuing to be interested in developing the film (because, you know, rewrites cost money). So this is all pretty good news for those of you who want to see OMW on the silver screen.

View From the Hotel Balcony 10/12/12, Plus Reminder: Capclave!

It is, if I may say so myself, a fantastic parking lot.

And also, I am here in Gaithersburg, Maryland for Capclave, which starts today and for which I am the Author Guest of Honor. I dragged my ass in at what was a reasonable hour by the clock but which my body decided was horribly late, so once I checked in what I ended up doing was ordering some room service and then going completely unconscious for eight straight hours. Which was great, because it’s been several days since I’ve had eight straight hours of unconsciousness at one go, and as I am at a convention, it seems a good chance I won’t have eight straight while it’s going on. So it’s nice to sneak it in somewhere.

If you happen to be in the DC area and are looking for something to do with your weekend, come on down; programming at the convention starts at 4pm, and my first event is at 8pm. And all the rest of the time I will be wandering about, trying to be accessible because, you know. That’s what the Guest of Honor gig is about. See you soon.

For Your Friday Political Discussion Consideration

A scenario for you:

1. Two weeks ago, Obama’s team looks at his position in the polls, realizes that both immediately and historically in the polling he’s likely to win re-election — likely enough that the money people in the GOP will soon figure that there’s no chance for Romney, pull their cash from the presidential campaign and send it to senate and house races in an attempt to keep the house (likely) and retake the senate (less likely but still achievable).

2. Obama’s people want to keep that from happening; they want the money mostly spent on Romney, who is a single target they can focus on and who has persistent weaknesses in polling, particularly when the electoral map is considered.

3. It has been discussed in political wonk circles that if Romney blows the first debate, the deep pocket GOP benefactors will pull their money out of the presidential race.

4. Obama’s folks are aware that there are three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate.

5. Therefore, a strategic decision is made to let Romney take the first debate — or at least to give him the chance to take the first debate — by having Obama underplay his hand. What losses he takes in the short-term polls can be mitigated in the two additional presidential debates and the VP debate, and by playing the electoral vote map rather than the national vote map. In the meantime, the GOP money stays in the presidential race rather than sent to the house and senate races, relieving potential pressure on those down-ticket races, and Obama’s folks get the advantage of having Romney spend his debating capital early, meaning there’s no where for him to go in the debates but down, and nowhere for Obama to go but up.

That’s the scenario: A massive rope-a-dope campaign designed not just to re-elect Obama but to give the Democrats a better standing in Congress.

Now: Your thoughts on the probability, wisdom, and implications of this (or something like this) being an actual political strategy by the Obama camp. Add them in the comments, please.

Politely.

 

 

The Big Idea: Ned Vizzini

Being a geek is a kind of a thing now — and while that’s not a bad thing (said the adult, grown-up geek), in the rush to normalize geekdom into acceptance, a few things about being a geek, and especially a young geek, can get airbrushed over. In his new novel The Other Normals, author Ned Vizzini thinks about what’s being airbrushed away — and why it’s not always a good thing that it is.

NED VIZZINI:

There’s a part of my new book The Other Normals that divides readers.

It happens halfway through, when the 15-year-old hero, Perry Eckert, has returned to summer camp from his first trip to a fantasy kingdom called “The World of the Other Normals.” Perry has been having trouble talking to a young woman he likes named Anna, who doesn’t think he’s mature enough. Now he’s surprised to find a hair where he didn’t have hair before. When Anna disses him at a dance and calls him a “boy,” Perry — confused and angry — pulls down his pants to show her that at least one part of him is, in fact, becoming a man.

I yelled, “Nooooooooooooo!” when I realized what he was about to do. (A film version of the book is inevitable, and I will be sorely disappointed if that moment isn’t filmed in slow-motion.)
— Leila Roy, Kirkus Reviews

The protagonist is immature to the point of implausibility — like when someone implies he’s immature, so he drops his pants to show the entire camp his lone pubic hair and shout that he is a man after all.
— somebody on Goodreads

I understand the consternation. It gets to one of the big ideas of the book: that being a geek isn’t just cute and lovable. It’s confusing, painful, and likely to be dangerous.

I first knew that I was a geek in kindergarten, during show and tell. Everybody brought in something to show and tell except me — I forgot. The teacher went around picking on each kid as I sat there thinking, “What do I do? WhatdoIdo?” Then I remembered: breakdancing.

I had seen breakdancing on TV. It was a new thing in 1986. A fad. The perfect thing to show and tell. And having seen it on TV, I figured I could do it. What people did was curl into a pretzel and spin on the ground. I could do that. You know why? Because Sesame Street taught me, “You can do anything you put your mind to.”

So I got in the center of the circle and breakdanced.

I’m not sure what it looked like. I assume it looked like a five-year-old wrestling himself. Everyone laughed at me. I burst into tears. The teacher ushered me into a corner where I sat on a chair and got myself together.

But I wasn’t just thinking sad thoughts on that chair. I was thinking about how to exact revenge on my fellow kindergarteners. I was thinking that it would be really cool if the room exploded and they all fell out the window. This bitterness was something I had to work through in high school and beyond — and something Perry learns about when he’s told, “Misfortune is no excuse for cruelty.”

Despite what a decade of blockbuster comic-book films has taught us, being a geek doesn’t necessarily mean winning the love of your life despite your surface imperfections. It doesn’t mean having a cool shirt with the periodic table or liking Dr. Who. It means being a social outcast — and the people who never confront it, or work through it, often turn into super-villains instead of super-heroes. (I’m thinking here of a particular recent psychopath who I won’t honor by naming.)

That was the kind of geek I wanted to portray in The Other Normals — a hopeless one, true-to-life, headed for oblivion. Then, I wanted him to confront his worldview and change, in the following ways:

  1. learning that being an outcast didn’t give him license to hate other people
  2. realizing that members of the opposite sex were people too, not unreachable symbols
  3. gaining the ability to control the zany, desperate energy that would make him do something like pull down his pants in the middle of a dance

The Perry at the end of the book wouldn’t do what the Perry in the middle of the book does. And not just because it’s embarrassing. Because it’s wrong.

—-

The Other Normals: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s LiveJournal. Follow him on Twitter.

 

Travel Travel Travel

Currently loitering in the Austin airport, heading toward to Maryland and Capclave, where I am the author Guest of Honor. This is what it looks like at the moment. Yes, Austin is actually monochromatic! It’s something they don’t tell you until you get here. Good barbeque, however.

The GDC Online presentation went well; you can see two articles on the presentation here and here. This was my first gaming conference, and I thought it was pretty interesting — a different mood and flavor than you would get at a science fiction convention, to be sure, but still populated with geeks. Geeks, man. They’re everywhere.

How is your day going?

In Which the New York Times Suggests I Am a Pretentious Git

You know, as they would.

It’s in this article, which gripes about Americans using words and phrases in more common usage in the UK. I get called out for calling the new iPad a “lovely piece of kit,” although it is. Apparently being an American, I should have settled on “Dude, this tablet is bananas,” or something else equally comporting with my nation of origin.

I left the comment, but I don’t think it’s cleared the moderation queue yet, so I’ll repost it here for recordkeeping:

I see we’re confronting the simultaneously existential yet provincial terror of someone choosing to use the whole of the English language when it suits them.

Yes, indeed, I used “A nice piece of kit” to describe the iPad, because it was an apt phrase for how I felt about the machine, and I like to use apt phrasing from time to time. Because, you know, I am a professional writer. I have also been known to use “all y’all” even though I am not from Texas, “no worries,” even though I am not from Australia, and “le mot juste,” even though I am not from France. I once invented something called the “schadenfreude pie” although neither it nor I am German. I ALSO EAT TACOS.

(I don’t, however, stand “on line.” You can keep that, New York. I want you to have it.)

If someone find it pretentious or annoying that I will use a British phrase when it suits me too, that is their karma (LOOK OUT SANSKRIT). They’re also a bit silly. I intend to enjoy as much of the English language as possible, and snack on other languages when it suits me. Because it’s fun and because language is meant to be used. Others do not approve? C’est la vie.

Or, in my own dialect: Oh, well.

Anyway. Silly, silly article. Although I suppose my New York friends will be amused  to see my name show up in their paper tomorrow. Surprise! I liked my last appearance better.

Amazon Author Rankings and Who They Actually Benefit

Amazon has started ranking authors by total sales via Amazon, updated hourly. This is certain to make a whole bunch of authors begin to freak out as they constantly refresh their Amazon author pages to see where they stand in the rankings, and, independently, give a whole bunch of people who have their own hobby horses about the state of the industry a bunch of ammunition to make proclamations about how the industry is changing in exactly the way they want it to change, so there, ha ha!

So, on this subject, some thoughts for people to consider when they look at these rankings.

One: They don’t capture the whole bookselling story, which is to say that Amazon is not all of the bookselling world. An author who sells well on Amazon doesn’t necessarily sell well off of Amazon (especially if they’re eBook only and tied into the Amazon ecosystem), and lots of authors sell books outside of Amazon, and those sales won’t be reflected in these rankings. I mean, Hell, yesterday I sold tens of thousands of copies of Old Man’s War through the Humble eBook Bundle. How will those be reflected in those Amazon rankings? Simple: They won’t. This is not a flaw in Amazon’s rankings, since Amazon makes it clear it’s only tracking its own sales. But if people make the inference that Amazon would be totally happy for them to make, i.e., that there is a strong correlation between these Amazon rankings and an author’s overall success as a commercial writer, then those people have a flaw in their own thinking.

This dovetails nicely with the next point:

Two: Amazon isn’t doing this for anyone but Amazon. How does this serve Amazon’s purposes? Among many other things, it helps to promote Kindle-only (or Kindle-majority) writers, many of whom move large numbers of books for free or for reduced cost relative to authors with publisher ties. It offers another reason for authors to use Amazon’s Author Central service, which will allow authors to quickly see their rankings. It motivates authors and publishers to lower prices on their eBooks to goose their sales (and thus their author) rankings, which serves Amazon’s purpose of motivating consumers to make their book purchases through Amazon, and through Amazon’s eBook ecosystem. The value proposition for authors is somewhat more nebulous outside of the ego boost of having one’s name sufficiently high up on the author rankings, but for some authors that may be enough.

Three: An author’s Amazon rank doesn’t necessarily correspond to financial success. One may make as much money or more selling fewer objects for higher prices than one may make selling a lot of objects for a lesser cost. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to find some authors further down on Amazon’s rankings making more money than some of those higher up, because they gross more in the aggregate from their sales. It’s nice to move lots of books, but it’s also, you know, nice to eat. An author might find it perfectly acceptable to decide to sell fewer copies of books to consumers who are less price-sensitive than to sell a lot to consumers who are buying fiction primarily as a value proposition. Bear in mind it’s possible to make a lot of money selling a lot of things cheaply, of course. But it’s not the only way to do things.

Four: The rankings rank disparate objects. Amazon says it counts all sales. But it also by all indications seems to count free books as sales (Update: In the comments, an reader notes Amazon is not counting free material), also appears to count any published work of any length or price as a single sale. Nothing wrong with that, if that’s the way you want to go with it, and Amazon appears to want to go with it that way. But it does mean for the purposes of a “sale” in one’s author rankings, a free or cheap short story is the equivalent of a newly published hardcover novel with a $24.95 list price (which will sell on Amazon for $16). This leads directly to the next point:

Five: The rankings are highly gameable. If you want to climb up the Amazon rankings as an author, the solution seems pretty obvious: release a whole bunch of shorter works available at low cost. Now, mind you, this is going to work out great for me, since starting in December we release The Human Division electronically, one episode at a time, once a week, and each episode will be available for a low cost. Someone who buys THD in this serialized form will make 13 separate (but individually low-cost) purchases; someone who waits until May to buy it in hardcover form will make only one purchase. It’ll be the same content. But one potentially has 13 times the potential to fiddle with my Amazon author rankings. Now, as it happens, we planned to do The Human Division in episodic form before I knew about Amazon’s author rankings, so I can’t be accused of intentionally planning to game my Amazon author ranking. However, if you don’t think authors won’t start trying to game their rankings, well. You don’t know how important it is for some folks to be highly ranked.

These are just five points to make about the rankings. There are other points to make (for example, how an author with an extensive backlist is at a ranking advantage to a newer author with fewer works) but I’ve made enough points that you can get my gist: Amazon’s author rankings should be taken with the appropriate grain of salt and with the appropriate perspective – just like any sort of ranking.

Authors who start to worry about their Amazon ranking should likewise be aware that by doing so they’re allowing Amazon to define their success to a greater or lesser extent… and they should really ask who ultimately benefits the most from that: Amazon or them. Amazon isn’t (necessarily) evil, but Amazon is interested in its own goals, many of which may ultimately be at cross purposes to an authors’ own. Amazon will be happy to frame your career to suit its own purposes. All you have to do is let them.

Keep it in mind as you’re refreshing your Amazon author page to see where your ranking is right now.

Checking in on the Humble Bundle

I’m pretty well chuffed at how well the Humble ebook Bundle is doing; in a little less than 24 hours we’ve pulled in just a shade over $370,000, and there are still 13 days left for the bundle’s availability. Clearly things will taper off after the publicity dies down, but, still and all, it’s hard not to be thrilled with the result, even after a single day. If people who donated left the default amounts where they were, we’ll have raised just a shade under $125,000 for Child’s Play, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and, of course, SFWA. I feel pretty good about how that shakes out. And again, 13 days to go yet.

I’ve also been asked how it was I got involved in the bundle in the first place, and the short answer is that Cory Doctorow asked if I would be interested, and I said I would be. I like the idea of the Humble Bundles in a general sense, combining as they do the promotion of creative work with a charitable component, and I also think it’s not a bad way to reach new audiences (i.e., the regular Humble Bundle crowd, who are a group similar to but not exactly contiguous with, science fiction readers) and give them a low-risk opportunity to check out my stuff. Someone who tries Old Man’s War and likes it will be happy to learn there are three — and soon to be four — other books in the series.

I’m going to make some money off the Humble Bundle, which is nice, to be sure. Probably not as much as people expect, since I a chunk  whatever I gross (roughly 7.9% of the pie, if people keep the defaults, which they don’t have to) with Tor, which is totally fair, before some of you get spun up, as contracts are contracts, I wouldn’t be where I am without Tor, and anyway, it’s not like I’m hurting.  But I did it primarily for the charitable aspect, and for what I hope will be a knock-on benefit for my career.

On the subject of money, someone on Twitter asked me what I plan to do with my Humble Bundle gains, and my response was the same as it always is for stuff like this: Until the check’s actually been cashed, I don’t make any plans at all. This is not to suggest that the Humble Bundle people will be anything other than absolutely scrupulously accurate in the apportionment of  funds — they wouldn’t have gotten this far if they hadn’t been so. It is to suggest that on the practical level of my day-to-day life, I think of it on a “cash in hand” basis, i.e., if the money is not actually in my wallet or my bank account, it doesn’t exist and I can’t use it for anything. This kind of thinking is no fun, sure. but I have have fun in other areas of my life. Dreaming about wacky adventures with money I don’t have yet (and therefore don’t have, period) doesn’t have to be one of those areas. I think this is not a bad idea for most writers, and most people.

The Big Idea: Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Welcome to the apocalypse! What’s next? This is a question at the heart of After, an anthology of nineteen stories set in apocalyptic or dystopic times. But there’s another question that After is interested in, and it involves short fiction and the young adult genre. Here are After’s editors, Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, to tell you what that question is and how they went about finding the answer.

ELLEN DATLOW and TERRI WINDLING:

There were actually two Big Ideas behind this anthology, so we’ll talk about them both.

As editors, we are passionate advocates of short stories as a literary form…but getting YA readers to try short fiction is an increasingly uphill battle. So our first Big Idea was a somewhat obvious one: we looked at the books that teens are reading and chose two of the most popular genres: YA vampire fiction (for our previous anthology, Teeth) and YA dystopian fiction. In the past, we would have shied away from these topics precisely because they are so overly-familiar…but now our aim was to use this popularity to tempt teens into giving short fiction a try.

We did this with a certain amount of trepidation, however. Could we move out of the long shadows cast by Twilight and The Hunger Games to create books that were fresh, original, and literary, yet still accessible to readers who loved these series? And would stories on each theme be diverse enough to make a varied and satisfying collection? For the dystopian book, in particular, we feared ending up with a volume that was unrelievedly grim…one bleak, despairing story after another. How could we ensure a diversity of styles, settings, characters, and moods? We decided to put the challenge to our writers — to have faith in their powers of invention and innovation.

For the dystopian book, we next had to decided what exactly we meant by “dystopian fiction” — the precise definition of which has been an ongoing cause of contention. In YA publishing circles, the term is broadly used to refer to stories that take place in darkly imagined futures: ranging from those exploring the dangers of repressive governments and societies-gone-bad to those whose plots unfold in bleak, savage, or oppressive post-apocalypse settings. A dystopian label often conveys more about a story’s overall tone than its plot-line (or subtext of societal critique): the worlds depicted are dark ones, in which protagonists must struggle for physical and/or moral survival. The literary purists among us, however, note that the classical definition of dystopian literature is far more specific: it refers to tales of utopias gone wrong. Traditionally, post-apocalyptic novels are dystopian only if the narrower definition applies – otherwise they are a genre of their own.

Although we respect the purists’ view, we decided to take the broader road in the creation of our anthology, which would include both dystopian and post-disaster tales (as well as stories that fell somewhere in between) in order to reflect the wide range of dystopian fiction beloved by young readers today. Once we’d made that decision, we searched for an appropriate book title — and that’s when we had our second Big Idea: We’d call the book After, and that single word would be the anthology’s organizing theme.

Here’s how we pitched the book to our publisher, Hyperion:

We will ask our contributors for stories that take place after some major catastrophic event: after the melt-down, the flood, the plague, the third World War, the new Ice Age, the Rapture, the invasion, the clamp-down, the meteor hit…or whatever else they can imagine. Rather than focusing on the disaster itself, each story will be set after the change, exploring the lives of teen protagonists raised in catastrophe’s wake — whether set in the years soon after the change, or in decades far in the future.

And that’s precisely what we did, soliciting stories from a selected list of authors who came from a variety of backgrounds — both those already known for YA dystopian fiction and those who were decidedly not. Publishers, of course, want a book filled with as many Big Name Writers as possible — and that’s fair, since that’s a useful tool in selling anthologies to bookstores and readers. But a well-known name won’t guarantee a place in one of our books if we don’t like the tale that’s been submitted (or it doesn’t fit with the others in the volume), and we’ve always been deeply committed to putting good fiction by emerging writers into readers’ hands, too.

As an anthology progresses and we begin the hard work of deciding which submissions we will and won’t use, we must consider not only the quality of the stories but how they fit into the anthology as a whole. Sometimes we have to turn down tales because they’re just too similar to something we’ve already bought. This results, mid-way through the anthology process, in sending group emails to our writers like this:

“No more flood stories please! Or medical plagues! We’ve got those covered!”

or:

“If you’re still mulling over story ideas, what we’re most in need of now is humor. Black humor, perhaps, or satire. Any takers?”

or:

“We’ve got too many tales in first person. Is anybody writing in third…?”

As the stories for After rolled in, one after another, our worries about diversity disappeared. They were dark, yes (these were dystopias, after all), but remarkably varied in style and mood — running the gamut from traditional (Garth Nix) to experimental (Gregory Maguire), from sharply cautionary (N.K. Jemisin) to gently poignant (Carol Emshwiller), from deeply disturbing (Susan Beth Pfeffer) to quietly hopeful (Cecil Castellucci). We had dystopian science fiction (Beth Revis), dystopian fantasy (Sarah Rees Brennan), dystopian horror (Nalo Hopkinson), dystopian satire (Jeffrey Ford), dystopian poetry (Jane Yolen), and dystopian surrealism (Matthew Kressel). We had floods in London (Katherine Langrish), pestilence in California (Carolyn Dunn), and anarchy on the streets of Manhattan (Richard Bowes). We had zombies (Carrie Ryan), bugs (Steven Gould), nanotechnology (Caitlín R. Kiernan), and reality television (Genevieve Valentine) all running amok. And we had teenagers building their lives in the ruined worlds they’d inherited. (Sound familiar?)

This was one of the hardest anthologies we’ve ever edited…but also one of the most rewarding. Our hope is that young readers will find it and love it enough to seek out other works of short fiction. And that teachers will use the book as a springboard for discussions about literature, culture, and society’s future. We hope adult readers will enjoy the book too, filled as it is with stories both finely written and entertaining. And perhaps after the book is done, we’ll all think just a little bit harder about the world we are passing on to our children’s children.

—-

After: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Visit Ellen Datlow’s site. Follow Datlow on Twitter. Visit Terri Windling’s site.

Old Man’s War Part of the Humble eBook Bundle

Hey, folks! I’m a participant in the Humble eBook Bundle, which introduces folks to some great science fiction and fantasy, all DRM-free, while also contributing to charities. The book I have as part of it is Old Man’s War, and other authors participating include Cory Doctorow, Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman and Paolo Bacigalupi. I’m going to go ahead and cut and paste the press release below, which pretty much explains everything. If you’re interested (and you should be), click that link above.

And yes, before you ask, I’ll be buying a bundle myself. As it happens, I don’t have an official DRM-free copy of Old Man’s War yet. Seems like a good way to get one, you know?

The Humble eBook Bundle is a pay-what-you-want promotion featuring eight amazing literary works from a prodigious league of award-winning authors.  For two weeks, fans can pay whatever price they want to support the following artists and receive:

  • Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow, an intense story of youthful techno-defiance
  • Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi, a hard-hitting collection of 11 impactful stories
  • Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, an alternate Earth mystical science fiction tale
  • Invasion: The Secret World Chronicle by Mercedes Lackey, Steve Libby, Dennis Lee, and Cody Martin, a modern military superhero saga packed with bonus content
  • Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link, a delightful fantasy collection of 11 stories
  • Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link, the cross-genre follow-up to Stranger Things Happen

If a buyer decides to pay more than the average price for the bundle, they will also receive:

  • Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, a science fiction war epic
  • Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, an ethereal graphic novel of a man’s last days

All of the books are available completely DRM-free for a wide range of eBook readers, mobile devices, and desktop computers.  We’ve also been working hard to make sure all the books are available in PDF, ePub (open ebook standard), and MOBI (Amazon Kindle) formats.

Customers can optionally allocate a part (or all) of their purchase to three fantastic charities:

  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation (Internet freedom non-profit)
  • The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (writers advocacy non-profit)
  • Child’s Play Charity (providing for kids in hospitals in the form of technology and games)

To date, we have sixteen successful promotions under our belt, and the generous and unparalleled contributions of bundle buyers have added up to more than $7,250,000 for charity!  We’re immensely proud to watch as this amount continues to climb with each bundle.