Reading Habits Die Hard

This will probably be my last post for a while, barring brief NaNoWriMo updates. For similar reasons, I’m trying desperately to finish one of the books I’m reading before the end of the month, as I don’t think I’ll have time for that, either.

Thinking about reading made me realise something about my reading habits, and how they’ve changed: I now read for variety, not depth. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I seem to spend less time doing it, or at least, don’t get through the same volume. My towering TBR pile is steadily approaching a similar size to the shelves of what I’ve actually read (or, at least, kept hold of). Books go on it faster than they come off, but despite the years of reading hoarded there, I still want more. A common problem, I know, but I couldn’t help wondering why I do it.

All the time in the world...

All the time in the world…

Some of it is simple book addiction – a lot of the books I collect are older ones, and much of that is my love of old paperbacks with exciting covers (at affordable prices!). A lot of those are at the very bottom of the priority list for actually reading, and I’ll probably only read them if I win the lottery, retire to a desert island and some kind of apocalypse hits. Sounds kinda nice…

However, I think my craving for new books stems largely from a craving for new experiences – after all, this is one of the reasons I read Fantasy in the first place! It also explains why a lot of my unread shelf gets passed over quite often and new books get added. Quite a lot of my collecting is works of authors I have read and enjoyed, and the collector in me loves to have complete sets (more than one, in some cases). But I could count the number of series I have actually finished recently on one hand. Why? Because I always want something new. Yes, I also have a bit of completion-phobia, but there are loads of books on my shelf by authors I know and love, full of characters and places that I know and love…and I still hesitate to read them. Familiarity, in my case, seems to breed a sort of contempt.

A multiverse of variety...only ever one hero.

A multiverse of variety…only ever one hero.

This wasn’t always the case…or was it? Yes, I have read copious series by Michael Moorcock, but those are very short books, and though the formula is often the same, there is variety in the details. I also finished a few other things that were particularly in my wheelhouse at the time – rarely anything longer than a trilogy, however. I’m just not in it for the long haul, no matter what I’d like to think. Yes, I’m still interested to know what happens at the end of ASOIAF, or the the eventual fate of the Black Company, or what Malazan was all about…but, realistically, I’ve got so many books I’d actually rather read that I’ll probably eventually settle for the synopsis.

Sacrilege, I know!

It’s much the same for TV shows. I’m a fan of the episodic, not the season-long arc, and only tolerate the show-long arc if it isn’t ever-present. And anyway, I don’t have time for that much TV with all this reading and writing to do!

Strangely, I’m not a big fan of short fiction either. I enjoy a good short story, but I find them insubstantial, lacking in lasting impression. As I said, I can just about hang in there for a trilogy, for the most part, though I probably won’t read them consecutively.  My reading history is littered with Book Ones that I’ve enjoyed, and my shelves stacked with Book Twos that I may never read. In the end, the standalone novel is just about perfect for me – long enough to build a world, characters and a story, but not long enough to let it grow stale, slow, or lose sight of its purpose. If only there were more!

I suppose that’s why I’m writing my current set of books the way I am. Yes, they are all set in the same world around the same momentous events – and in that respect, I suppose they are ‘Epic Fantasy’, but there is no Book One – or rather, they all are. I’m not sure yet if this will work for people, but it works for me. Just like my reading, I don’t think I could commit to write the same thing for book after book, no matter how much I love it.

PS: If anyone has a good word for a collection of books that aren’t in a linear sequence, I’d love to hear suggestions. Quintet could work, because a string quintet all collaborate and interact, but I fear people will still expect a 1-5 numbering? There’s Mosaic, but GGK used that (along with Tapestry), and while that’s not a bad thing, it might be considered pretentious? A Tale of Whatever (I thought Malazan was going to be like this, but it wasn’t)? Hmmm…

NaNoWriMo: Resistance is Futile

Well, it looks like I’m actually going to do it this year. Previously, I’ve dismissed it as a gimmick, part of me appalled by the thought of so many others cranking out word-count like the proverbial infinite battery of typing monkeys. After all, I wrote books all the time, not just for a month, and not because everyone else was. I’ve never liked moving with the crowd.

But of course, for many of those Novembers I wasn’t actively writing a book, and in fact I haven’t created any serious chunks of would-be novels since September last year. I have been working, of course, since I finished the manuscript of WIP2, but most of that has been editing WIP1, and not in a very regimented way, either. I have, in fact, been dedicated to reducing word-count in that time – many thousands of words have been expunged, to my great satisfaction. Still, switching to forward gear again may be a bit a bit of a struggle.

I’ve been trying to ease myself in, rewriting the long-dormant opening chapters of the story I have finally decided to write. I did a bit of this by hand on holiday, which can feel a lot more productive than it is (long hours but at low speed, many pages but in a small notebook), and most importantly I think I’ve set the tone and the direction. This is vital, since I write by the seat of my pants, as they say, and so while I have a vague idea where the plot will take them, I don’t have a scene-by-scene outline. I have heard outlines can really help in a situation, like NaNoWriMo, where you have a big word-count target to hit in a limited time, but there is nothing more blocking for me than the idea of writing a scene on spec (even my own spec).

The whole reason I ‘pants’ is that I love to discover the unfolding story as I write it, almost as if I’m reading it, and I’m very excited to ‘read’ this one. The premise is that two rival warrior/agents in a massive Arabian/Oriental-inspired empire have to put aside their differences to investigate a dangerous plot only they can hope to get to the bottom of – that is, if they can stay alive long enough. Which would be a lot easier if one of them were not sworn to kill the other…

The two most feared Swords in the Eternal Empire, caught in a mystery that will shake its very foundations, bound together by duty and honour, not by choice. They will need to discover the meaning of a riddle they both only know part of – let alone solve it – before the time runs out on their immortal ruler. Their quest will take them to the very reaches of the Empire and beyond, meeting friends and foes along the way. The Wolf’s faithful servant will journey every step with them, sharing their tale with us – but does she have hear own secrets?

Here’s hoping for a productive November!

The Rating Game

Like a perennial weed, the subject of reviews and ratings for books has come up for discussion in several fora recently, and I reckon it merits collecting into a post here. Even more timely, as news reports that Amazon is suing over 1000 users of the marketplace site Fiverr over paid fake reviews, something that isn’t new in the book world and many suspect still goes on. Amazon, like most other marketplaces and also non-selling sites like Goodreads, connects their massive database of books with a rating and reviewing system that public users contribute to. At the end of the day, what both readers and writers are looking for is a system that allows fair evaluation of a work in order to help it connect with more readers. Problem is, I’m not sure that’s what we’ve got.

The Problem

What’s wrong with the current system? In a lot of ways, it generally works. Reviews on Amazon or Goodreads have been very helpful over the years in helping me choose books (and other things), and I’ve written a fair few myself. I can’t imagine going back to the pre-internet days when all you had was a cover and a blurb (ok, and the first however many pages you wanted to read) to go on. Yes, we also had our friends, family and traditional media, but these days even my “word-of-mouth” recommendations come from Twitter or Facebook…upon which I promptly check out the reviews!

From the start, however, I’ve had frustrations with one aspect of the reviewing system that most of these sites adopt: the star rating. Star ratings have a long tradition, and are there for a clear purpose: to allow a quick comparison of different work by a simple scoring metric. In the digital, internet age, tens, hundreds or thousands of public ratings are usually combined to give an average score. This then allows you to rank every book in the database on this average and let the best books come out on top, right?* With such a broad sampling of opinions, surely that will give a reasonable, useful answer?

Well, not exactly. For a start, books at the extremes in terms of numbers of reviews can often skew towards the top end. Both the uber-popular bestseller with legions of one-book-a-year fans and the self-pubber with reviews from mom, dad, best friend and the writer will skew towards the 5-star average. Any book with a hint of controversial content will crash down the scale – heck there’s even rating bias against women authors (in Fantasy, from my own research). There’s also confusion between whether the ratings represent how ‘good’ a book is, or how much you liked it – and the meaning of stars differ from site to site. Finally, there are the frustrating reviews which rate the service (“book was never delivered”) or the price (“why is the ebook more than the paperback?”) or something else entirely (“great toaster!”).

What this all boils down to is a rating system that isn’t all that useful but causes all sorts of consternation for readers and authors alike. Written reviews themselves are usually more useful (more later), but are still often overshadowed by the scores. Further, Goodreads allows ratings without a written review, so then you don’t have anything else to go on, which is hardly helpful. (I’m not sure about Amazon, because I know you can as a user rate something without writing a review but I’m not sure where those ratings go. If you do, get in touch!)

And this problem isn’t unique to books. I won’t go into detail here, but it’s interesting that another massive ratings site, IMDb, has a 10-point scale and doesn’t use simple averages in an obvious acknowledgement of the problems here. The same is true for popular travel and restaurant review site TripAdvisor. And even when academics use such ratings systems in peer review, the results are rarely reliable.

What’s the big deal?

There are several reasons why star ratings are important for readers, and even moreso for authors.

First, average scores remain an instant and very visible appraisal of the quality of a book (whatever that means). For a reader, this can mean doubting the worth of reading something with less than 4-star average. For a writer, it can mean crushing rejection of your hopes and dreams (have a look at my book on GR, if you want). Further, when sites let you browse by ranking (like Amazon), visibility depends on a high average rating. It also may impact recommendations, but I haven’t a clue how those work.

Second, and slightly more sinister, is that the complex algorithms running sites like Amazon apparently use these scores in even more complicated ways. Somewhat galling, Amazon counts anything below a 4-star review as “negative” (even though the definition is “It’s ok”) and this can be damaging to an author. Apparently, it used to be worse than it is now, whereas lately I’ve heard that any review helps to get the attention of the Amazon elder gods. When visibility on lists or charts is a huge factor in success, no wonder people are obsession over and even trying to game these systems.

Now you get a situation where readers and authors want different things. Readers still want critical reviews so they can choose how to spend their hard-earned cash (not to mention reading time). Writers and publishers, however, want a deluge of positive reviews upon which to surf to fame and fortune. Potential reviewers are pressured into only leaving positive comments, and the old adage of “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” seems the new golden rule. Authors publicly wail and gnash their teeth at “bad” reviews, knowing that more than their feelings are being hurt. Readers are left to try to sort one apparently amazing book from another, without really knowing what to expect once they get past the sample chapter(s).

The New World Order

With traditional publishing, reviews and ratings are often more helpful because reviewers are more critical. This would seem natural when reviewing a professional product that you’ve paid a decent amount of money for, and when you are often a small voice in a crowd. Yes, the rating scale gets skewed by popularity/controversy (or just gender) as mentioned above, and everything bunches around the top marks. For example, when I collected the ratings for 155 fantasy authors on Goodreads, the average book rating was 3.97 (comparing book to book regardless of number of ratings) and the average rating given was 4.09 (comparing all book ratings at once). Still, you can usually find a few good reviews (i.e. considered, critical ones, not necessarily positive) on which to make a decision.

For indie/self-publishing it can be very different. Some of this is probably readers going a little easier on people they know have done all the work themselves, for whom they feel it will matter a lot more, and often after having paid very little or nothing for the product. That’s natural and understandable, and to be honest I have done it myself. You can pick these ones out, if they have helpful lines like “not perfect, but…” or “pretty good for a free book!”.

Then there are the less trustworthy reviews. Whether these come from family, friends, fanbois or (*gasp*) paid reviewers, they offer almost nothing to the prospective reader and only serve as sacrifices to the Elder Gods of the Algorithm. “Best book ever!” they say. “Stephen King meets Tolkien meets Aristotle!” they shout. “Can’t wait to buy the next one!” they inevitably conclude. And of course the average rating is 4.9 and even then the author ain’t happy.

For the reader, all this just leads to an evaporation of trust. I’ve gotten to the point where I simply ignore the 5-star reviews and dig down to the “negative” ones in search of critical appraisal. Since you almost inevitably find one saying damning things about any number of things, I mostly end up not purchasing the book. So, on one hand it may be helping the all-powerful visibility algorithm, but I can’t see how it’s necessarily translating into massive sales (especially with all the typos and bad grammar in the sample!). Worse, a slew of uncritically glowing reviews tends to provoke a 1-star from someone either suckered into buying the unworthy product, or someone who has rage-read it just to be able to share the truth with the world.

The Point, or How to Get to It

Of course, we still have the old reliable methods of personal/internet recommendations, word of mouth, review sites and blogs. And if you don’t know who to believe, you can always pick a book off a shelf or open the sample chapters and see if you like what you read. But, with so many more books out there these days, the chances are ever increasing that you may just never come across a book that could be exactly what you are looking for – the very idea gives me cold sweats!

Clearly, readers would benefit from a system that more accurately represented the merits of different books. Some authors might cling to their precious 5-star average, but this will eventually devalue as more and more people realize the system is broken. In the long run, I think a more refined and useful system will benefit everyone. Better tools would help readers find what they really want and help books find the right audience. Whether this is a tweak to Amazon’s algorithms, a revamp of Goodreads’ scoring system, or something completely new, I don’t know, but I hope it’s coming. Soon.

* Goodreads, to my knowledge, has no big lists you can rank by average rating. Amazon does.

The Bandwagon has Left the Building

This was originally posted on my Tumblr a year ago.
This is in a lot of ways in response to things that came up in a Rocket Talk podcast with Kameron Hurley and Liz Bourke. Also, a response to my own blog of a few weeks back.  Basically, it’s about niche, cycles, markets (which I don’t claim to understand) and all those details that might influence the success of your book.  How do you manage all that as an author?

Well, you probably don’t, unless you are incredibly clever.  In my last post, I got all depressed about how what I am writing is not probably popular, and neither is what I read.  According to people who should know, we’re in the midst of an epic fantasy sea change from the post-Tolkien ere to the post-Martin era.  I’m still a bigger fan of the first, but you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

Timing is everything, but you’re already too late

Now, if you happen to have written a bit of grimdark or game-of-thrones-clone, and you can get it out right now, well done!  This is working for a lot of people, I’m sure.  However, if you are just starting to write it now, you may be too late.  (Unless you can write as fast as Jonathan Moeller, I guess.)  Chances are the pendulum of taste will swing again before long, and the market will be looking for the next thing.  With the long lead-times in traditional publishing, they probably already have some of it under contract.

Then again, if it’s good you can probably find a market for a while yet.  I’ve also noticed that a lot of indie authors have done well with things I wouldn’t call cutting-edge, so there’s a good chance that there’s an actual market out there for what is critically and commercially passe.  I mean, hey, vampire fiction still sells, just not as well.

Second guessing

So what might the next big thing be?  In the podcast, Kameron Hurley puts her money on heroic fantasy making a comeback.  I’m on board with the idea that people will tire of endless grim, dark books full of antiheroes and shades of grey.  I never entirely warmed to them, myself.  I’m not sure if taste really is a pendulum (as I said above), or a wheel (as people often say), but if it was I suppose you could try to predict when certain genres would come back into fashion.  Or, at least, cross your fingers and hope things will swing back in favour of your farmboy fantasy.

Or, you could write YA, I guess, because those kids don’t know any better!

Genre Alchemy

I think what’s interesting is watching sub-genres splinter, sink, swim, merge and generally evolve in a more chaotic fashion than pendula or wheels allow.  Flintlock fantasy is now a thing, but will it stand the test of time?  New weird already seems to be fading, but then I’m not completely sure what it is.  Vampires are back in their underdark, but of course will never actually die.  And does it even matter if sub-genres last?  The books will always be there.

Some influences are bigger than genre–the GRR Martin sea-change I mentioned earlier will affect everything.  His setting and genre elements aren’t what set him apart, but the mechanics of what he did within tried-and-tested boundaries has blown everyone away.

Other people are challenging assumptions within boundaries as well.  Kameron Hurley’s massively-hyped book pushes so many envelopes in fantasy she probably has her own post office (update: it’s definitely worth a read).  Indeed, work like that starts to redefine fantasy completely, because for so long fantasy was about the conservative and science fiction about pushing boundaries.  I suppose this is where genre-blending ‘Speculative Fiction’ label applies, and I expect it to become even more evident.

Riding the wave or making waves

Maybe you are writing the defining work of the next hot sub-genre right now, I don’t know.  What I do know, is that it’s probably not worth worry too much about it.  Most of the best books are the ones nobody could have predicted, rather than the ones we expected.  Just write what you want to write, make it as good as you can, and see if people like it.