April 2008 Archives

John Scalzi challenges writers to post extracts from their favourite one-star (stinker) reviews on Amazon.com.

Hey, this could be fun!

Regular readers may recall that back in 2006 I played exactly this game with great works of literature. So how do I stack up in the stinker stakes?

(NB: please don't contact Amazon about these reviews, or pester the reviewers. (I've deliberately left their names off in order to make it harder to do that.) They're perfectly entitled to their opinions; as every novelist learns very early on, whatever you write, you can guarantee that at least 20% of the population will hate it. If you disagree with them, that's your problem, not theirs. I'm posting this for my own amusement, and because I happen to agree with John: "Own your one-star reviews, man. And then, you know. Get past them. If you’re lucky, some of them might actually be fun to read.")

So here they are ...

Singularity Sky

"A terrible piece of work... speed read through most of this dreadful book and threw in the trash afterwords.... I would not recommend another sentient being waste their precious time on this beautiful world..."

"I got through about a third of this book before I just gave up and took it back to the library. Dull, dull, dull!!!!!"

(<smug>That's all the one-star reviews Singularity Sky got. ...</smug>).

Iron Sunrise

"Stross managed to thoroughly alienate me with the unpleasant characters, violence, and sick sex. I wanted to wash out my mouth and take a shower after one particularly graphic description. "

"His cynical, sarcastic political observations are as clumsy as they obvious."


"I gave it a good try based on all the good press and the Hugo nom, but it gave me a headache."

"While I will acknowledge that Stross' depiction of the future is imaginative, this book is devoid of both plot and characterization. It is no more than a bombastic showcase of his numerous technological ideas and an exercise in self-indulgence. "

"The writing is some of the worst I have ever experienced. "


"I didn't enjoy this book at all. It's a boring little whodunit, adorned with sci-fi artifacts.

The story in this book takes place in the world that exists at the end of "Accelerando". While "Accelerando" is fast-paced and fun, with a logical progression, this book is slooooooooooooooooooooow and full of contrived plot twists."

Halting State

"This book was impossible to read. I read over 100 pages and still couldn't figure out what they were talking about."

"Reminds me of cheap SF comics of the 50s and badly written online adventure games."

(Tackling the Laundry novels was hard — I had to use two-star reviews because there aren't any one-star ones on Amazon.com ...)

The Atrocity Archives

"Reading this is like reading a geek's blog, lots of silliness, lots of attention calling gambits and lots of geek snobbery, where the author throws stuff in just to try to impress you with his knowledge. What I wanted was a magic wielding spy, what I got was a magic wielding spy who doesn't do spy stuff, throwing out explanations that make no sense and talking about his daily life living with other nerds."

The Jennifer Morgue

"This inedible Mulligan stew claims to emulate the ian Fleming superhero, with perhaps Batman & Wonder Woman ancestry. The plot is fast paced raggedly coherent with sexually explicit interludes, characters are obsessively one dimensional, and the story is unredeemed by excessive satirical attempts at humor."

(Skips a couple of books ...)

The Clan Corporate

"It seems that the author believed that the series would make him rich if he could keep the series going so he trashes the whole concept of the first two books to do it. The first two books were great but this one is so much of a disappointment that I would advise people not to start the series."

"I taught myself how to speed read to get through the dross."

"I bought it because I'm a sucker for finishing a series. DON'T DO IT. Put the mouse down and walk away. Do NOT check that box."

I'm finishing a novel. (Just 13,000 words to write until I get to the notional end-point ...) And aside from that, I've got a speaking engagement 35 miles from home this weekend and a side trip to visit relatives on the way home. And my energy level is too low to combine massive rushing around with finishing a novel and keeping the blog updated three times a week.

Bionic eyes implanted in blind patients, says the Daily Telegraph;

Two blind patients underwent the procedure, which surgeons say 'is straight out of science fiction', at Moorfields Eye Hospital in central London last week and are said to be "doing well". Surgeons implanted an electronic device into the back of the eye to allow the patients to distinguish objects as pictures made up of spots of light. The device works with a tiny camera mounted in a pair of glasses which transmits a wireless signal via a small processor on a belt into a receiver and a panel of electrodes placed in the back of the eye. Three more patients will have the four-hour operation as part of an international trial before the technique is evaluated and extended. At first patients who are completely blind due to an inherited condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa are being treated but eventually it could be offered to thousands of patients as the devices are perfected.

(Declaration of interest: My right eye has only about 50% peripheral vision, and the fovea of my left eye is held in position with the surgical equivalent of duct tape, circa-1990. I'm legal to drive but not to fly a plane, and I've lived most of my adult life with the possibility that the retinopathy could start eating into my visual field again. So I take this kind of personally.)

(Astute readers will notice that I just updated the sidebar section "Buy my books" with a new title that's due out in July. If you want to understand the reason I'm posting this entry, read the rest of it then click through the link to the US hardcover edition for a worked example.)

Thoughts about marketing and brand dilution remind me that it's about time I said something on the subject of marketing and books. So I'll start with a point that is both trivial and has a remarkable ability to annoy authors: How much control does a novelist have over the way their book is published?

Unless we're talking about the small press or self-publishing, the answer is "zip". The author is responsible for writing and delivering the contents of the book and, optionally, additional material such as a dedication and acknowledgements. But the way their manuscript — a typescript, typically prepared in accordance with the ancient and established Rules — is turned into a book is entirely up to the publisher.

There's a good reason for this: novelists are not generally marketing experts or design gurus.

In fact, as novel-length fiction is the last hold-out of the solitary creative producer, most of the folks who're attracted to it as a profession are downright odd, and have correspondingly strange ideas, including the peculiar misapprehension that, having signed a contract licensing the publisher to publish and sell their work, they ought to have some say in how the publisher goes about doing so. (Not to mention harbouring charmingly eccentric but not necessarily realistic theories about marketing and design ...)

The one important insight that authors generally lack — or at any rate have difficulty in acting on — is that it's not about them. A major commercial publisher pumps out books on a production line, producing five to ten (or sometimes more) titles every month. Their novel, which they have slaved over for months or years, is not the centre of the publisher's world: it's an item on a conveyor belt geared to meet the practical demands of shoveling shipping containers of books out the warehouse on a weekly basis.

It follows that one of the unwritten parts of the job description of a commercial fiction editor is to keep the authors as far away from everybody else in the business of publishing as possible. And so, there's a standard production process that the delivered book gets run through, with the author kept in the dark until the fateful email arrives with a large graphical attachment and a note saying: "hi! Here's your new cover! We all think it's great! How do you like it?"

The cover of your novel is not an attempt to faithfully depict a scene from the story that you wrote. It is an advertisement, aimed at the eyeballs of members of the reading public who have never heard of you, and it is intended to make them pick up the book. It typically comes about because the editor prepares a brief synopsis of the book (including, if you're lucky, a sample extract or two) then sends it to the art director, who briefs an artist to paint a picture (again: if you're lucky enough that they're willing to pay an artist a couple of thousand bucks to paint a picture based on your book). The art director then passes the picture to a graphic designer to handle superimposition of the necessary layout elements (title, author's name, publisher's logo, bar code and other necessary tags, then the strap line and cover copy). Then it goes to marketing, who pass judgement upon it and maybe send it back to the art director for tweaking. Some or all of these hats may be worn by the same person. In any event, all of these steps happen before they get to the stage of sending the email that says "hi! Here's your new cover! We all think it's great! How do you like it?" ... and by the time they've sent the email they're already working on the next book.

So. What kind of answer do you think they're looking for?

Things are different with small publishers, of course; very often all the hats are worn by the same person, and the cover arises out of a free and frank three-way discussion between the artist, the author, and the editor. And that's very nice, but it only really works if the publisher's got time on their hands. I've occasionally been in the privileged position of having an editor at a major publisher show me an artist's rough sketch and ask for an opinion before they commission the cover art ... but that's rare. In general, the cover lives or dies by the Marketing Director's whim, on the basis of the one question: "will this help sell more copies?"

Finally, the author doesn't even own the title.

One title I've been regretting for years is "Singularity Sky". The novel published under that name went through a variety of names along the way. My original working draft was tagged "Dead Light", but that was a bit too close to "Dark Light" (which Ken MacLeod had stuck on the front of one of his books). Books either start with a title and proceed therefrom, or the title is an afterthought; this book was one of the latter. In the end, I sent it out as "Festival of Fools", and that's the title it was sold under. Until, a month after the US contract was signed, my editor emailed me. "Sales say that it's too close to another book we published this year, called 'Ship of Fools' — it'll confuse the readers. Can you think of a different title for it? Maybe something with the word 'Singularity' in it?"

Okay, at least she asked. I've got nobody but myself to blame for "Singularity Sky". And it's not a bad title, really; it's just that, in combination with the content "Accelerando", it gives some folks the peculiar idea that I'm one of those Singularity guys. In fact, under the contract I'd signed, my editor would have been pretty much within her rights to have retitled the book without asking me. Because? The author is responsible for delivering the stuff between the covers of the book, and has a legal right to have their name on the cover ... and that's about where their involvement in the layout and design of their book begins and ends.

What's the value of a recognized brand, in marketing?

One might want to ask Richard Branson. Forbes rated him as the world's 236th richest person earlier this year; having started his first businesses as a teen-ager, the serial entrepreneur went on to form Virgin Group, which is now some kind of transcontinental octopus entangled in everything from airlines to health clubs. (I should know about the latter, having just come home from one.)

Of course, if you slap a well-known brand — and Virgin is probably one of the best-known brands in the British business space — on a sub-standard product, you risk damaging it. Virgin was built on record stores and then a successful airline that competed on quality with British Airways, the national flag-carrier, rather than with the budget airlines. For the first twenty years or so it was a quality brand — stylish, customer-savvy, a luxury item. But recently, things have begun to go wrong.

Probably the first sign of the rot setting in came in 1997, when Virgin acquired the Inter City West Coast and Cross Country elements of the British Rail network. These trains weren't virgins — they were comprehensively fucked, the cumulative consequence of a decade of Tory under-investment. Virgin Rail became the instant butt of a number of cruel jokes, and the rolling stock they bought to replace the clapped-out kit didn't improve things; flashy, glitzy, comfortable carriages configured in three classes (nose-bleedingly gold-plated, outrageously expensive, and cattle-class) with insufficient room to carry the passenger load. The idea of running smaller, more frequent trains would have been a good one if they'd been able to make it work reliably, but in the absence of track and station infrastructure to support it, things didn't work well.

Since then, things have gone downhill fast. Around 1997, the UK installed a cable TV and cable internet infrastructure. Digging up hundreds of thousands of streets is expensive, so two limited-term regional monopolies were granted to cable operators, NTL and Telewest. After a while they began rolling out broadband internet on their networks (around 2000, if memory serves), and underwent the harsh learning curve associated with becoming an ISP. Then something obvious happened. In 2006, the two loss-making cablecos merged to form one mammoth blundering mess, NTL/Telewest. And also in 2006, the new hybrid purchased Branson's Virgin Mobile brand (then a cellphone franchise) and began the process of rebranding, from February 2007, as Virgin Media.

Read my lips: Virgin Media are so awful that I'm leaving them and I encourage you to do likewise.

Reasons they're awful? Let me give you a list. To start with, I didn't much pay attention when they announced that they were going to start charging by the minute for telephone support calls. After all, I'm competent to configure my own broadband router; I don't need my hand holding, right? Well, I've changed my mind.

It appears highly likely that Virgin are probing the equipment you attach to your cable modem and dropping packets destined for broadband routers. I noticed this when my otherwise-reliable Apple Airport Extreme began falling off the net with increasing frequency; I replaced it. Imagine my surprise when the replacement unit began exhibiting identical symptoms? Some annoying (and expensive) support calls later, I plugged the iMac on my desk straight into the CM, and waited ... and the connection proved solid. So I switched on internet sharing and fed the connection through to the rest of the household and ... the connection remained solid. I've now compared notes with several other owners of broadband routers and they all confirmed the same phenomenon: plug a router into a Virgin cable modem and it exhibits signs of instability, but switch to a PC or Mac or Linux box (running NAT, so it's doing the job of a router) and the cable connection stabilized.

(I've been keeping a lid on this because I haven't had time to verify beyond any possible doubt that I hadn't simply bought two dead Airports in a row and then suffered from selection bias in the folks I've been comparing notes with ... but I figure if this is a genuine problem, some of you will also have experienced it and will let me know.)

And then there's Phorm. Virgin is one of three mainstream ISPs (the other notables are British Telecom and Carphone Warehouse, but the latter backed out hastily) who were announced to be talking to Phorm about letting the spyware company snoop on their customers' internet connections, probably in violation of the Computer Misuse Act and in violation of the customers' right to privacy. Phorm is a nasty piece of work, and while I'm not surprised at a large faceless customers-are-a-commodity organization buying into their business model I'm startled that the owners or franchisees of the Virgin brand should be seemingly oblivious to the damage they've been doing to their good name.

And now there's a third strike against Virgin Media.

"In an interview with the Royal Television Society’s Television magazine, far from covering up their intentions, Virgin Media’s new incoming CEO Neil Berkett - who joined the Virgin Media Board just a few days ago - has launched an attack on the ideas and principles behind net neutrality.

“This net neutrality thing is a load of bollocks,��? he said, adding that Virgin is already in the process of doing deals to speed up the traffic of certain media providers."

More on this here and here. The arguments on net neutrality are complex, but what they boil down to is this: Virgin believe they've got the right to control the speed of your cable connection, and they'll give you rapid access only to content provided by big companies that have paid them to provide access. Everything else can take "the bus lane", to use Virgin Media CEO Neil Berkett's charming turn of phrase. Got that? If Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation or advertisers like DoubleClick want to stuff their propaganda down your throat, they can give their friend Neil a back-hander and he'll fix things for them. But if you want to go off the beaten track and look at stuff that's not commercial you're on your own.

There's a pattern of abuse becoming evident here. Virgin Media have adopted the toxic and ultimately suicidal view that they own their customers — a captive audience who can be exploited in any way they deem reasonable. Throttle their bandwidth, demand payments for access, charge 'em for support calls, decide what equipment they may or may not connect to the network — because Virgin are the national cableco monopoly (and where was the Monopolies and Mergers Commission when this poisonous conglomerate was being formed?).

Richard Branson ought to sue the fukcers for damaging his trademark.

As for me, all I'm looking for is a suitable replacement TV service and I'm outa here. (For broadband, I'm probably going to these people, who I am informed are a decent old-fashioned internet service provider without delusions of grandeur or monopoly megalomania. And on the TV front, I just need to figure out a way of getting the Discovery Channel without putting a satellite dish on my roof, which I can't do because of local planning restrictions.) If you're a Virgin subscriber, I advise you to do likewise. And if they give you any shit over getting out of your contract early, refer them to the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 (specifically Schedule 2 of terms that may make a contract unfair: 1(j) enabling the seller or supplier to alter the terms of the contract unilaterally without a valid reason which is specified in the contract; (k) enabling the seller or supplier to alter unilaterally without a valid reason any characteristics of the product or service to be provided; ... both of which Virgin Media seem to fall foul of.

I'm in a b-a-a-a-a-d way right now. Normal service will be resumed once my head figures out what continent I'm on. (Hey, why don't we see this shit in the kind of SF that deals with real fast interplanetary/interstellar travel? You arrive on a new world and not only are you eleven hours out of whack, but there are twenty seven hours in the day and the sun rises in the west ...)

First of all, subjects: many cons build their program around a core concept, and try to build a stream of program items that focus on it; for example, "the matter of Britain in Arthurian fantasy", or "space opera since Star Wars", or "Terry Pratchett: is he great, or what?". Someone — hopefully a bunch of someones — have to come up with a suitable set of topics for discussion around these themes, and ideally match them to the known or declared interests of folks attending the convention. When it's done well, it shows; titles make sense, there's a paragraph-long explanation that introduces what the programming folks feel the discussion should be about, and the panelists known what they're meant to be talking about. But sometimes it doesn't work.

Prime indicators that all is not well with programming include the presence of cryptic panel titles with no explanation ("arsefardles we have known and loved" — yes, but what exactly is an arsefardle?), topics with no obvious relation to the declared theme of the program stream ("rockets to Mars" is not a good match for "the matter of Britain in Arthurian fantasy"), and wholly inappropriate panelists (the talking heads for "rockets to Mars" find themselves on "the matter of Britain in Arthurian fantasy" and vice versa). Even worse signs include: there is no designated moderator on the list of panelists — the moderator's job is to keep the discussion flowing and to make sure everyone gets a chance to say their piece — or the moderator is a famously opinionated egomaniac with a bushel of well-sharpened axes sitting behind them, or (worst of all) there are no panelists.

A note on duration. Talking in front of an audience is, funnily enough, a tiring job. Some folks have lots of stamina, but a general rule of thumb is that one hour on stage is about as tiring as three hours in the audience. Scheduling a panelist for more than 3 hours a day on stage is, therefore, pushing the limits for most people. And this supposes a full panel, with perhaps 3-4 talking heads (and a moderator to keep things going). If it's a two-person discussion, consider that each participant is doing the work of two heads on a bigger panel — two of those in one day is more than enough for most participants.

Planning a convention program is hard work — selecting your participants, arranging your list of topics, matching the two and making sure they know what they're talking about, and then turning it into a viable schedule — it all takes time. The programming committee's hard work is invisible when it goes smoothly; most panelists only notice when things go wrong — when they're scheduled for six hours of monologuing in front of a mike on the Saturday night, or their moderator turns out to be their stalker. How can you, as an aspiring program committee member, manage to simultaneously draw attention to yourself and make your panelists' convention more exciting?

Well, you can start by trying to make sure that every program participant finds themselves sitting on stage with four other panelists, one of whom is moderating by monologue (not letting anyone else introduce themselves, much less express an opinion). Alternatively, you can make them the centre of attention by putting them in the hot seat with one other panelist (who is an expert on late 18th century Ruritanian poetry but knows nothing about the subject in hand). Extra points for ensuring that panelists and audience end up in different places entirely, thus ensuring a wonderfully broadening cross-fertilization of ideas: call BINGO if two of the panelists fail to arrive at the con, one doesn't understand the topic, one is insane, and one's succumbed to laryngitis.

Scheduling is really easy to handle. Panelists need exercise, which is why the proficient program planner will schedule the most arthritic septuagenarians for three back-to-back panels at opposite ends of a large hotel. It's well known than SF writers are good at sprinting through crowds while maintaining perfect bladder control. Giving them time off between panels is contrary to natural law — you don't have to pay them a bent penny, as they're obviously willing volunteers, so why not work them for all they're worth?

Finally, never underestimate the importance of scheduling parents with small children for dinner-time panels, or travelers from foreign parts for panels that kick off an hour before their flight lands. If a panelist tells you beforehand that they're not available at certain times of day, they're just slacking — you don't need to pay any attention to that stuff.

I'm traveling (in Washington DC, acquiring blisters as I tramp round museums) so I'm a bit short on conversational topics right now (unless you want some poor quality vacation snapshots of the Apollo 11 command module, for example). However, there is a topic that has lately captured my attention, and this is my bully pulpit, so ... you know the drill.

The topic of the day: panels at conventions. If you've been to a conference, be it a science fiction convention or an academic one, you probably know the idea: a bunch of talking heads on stage, discussing some topic of interest to the audience (and possibly taking questions).

The reason I want to talk about them: I'm in demand for panels at SF cons. In fact, I've done seventeen of them in the past month and about 25 this year so far, and probably something like 300 of them in the past decade. I've been on some amazingly productive, fascinating discussions — and some that were completely unorganized fiascos. And in order to avoid having to repeat myself, here's my brain dump on how to organize a panel discussion in order to minimize the risk of things going wrong.

This is part #1 in a series of four blog postings on the topic of panels at conventions. And today I'm going to talk about that most universal of considerations — the environment. We don't usually give a lot of thought to the venue in which a panel discussion takes place, but that's a mistake. Get the environment wrong, and the panel is doomed to failure before it starts. So here's what I know about how you should arrange the environment for a panel.

There is a standard format for most panel discussions. In general, if you've got a group of speakers and an audience — and the two are not interchangeable — messing with the standard format is a bad idea.

The standard format is: start with a room, with walls and a door. The venue needs to be reasonably sound-proof, lest outsiders drown out the panelists (or disrupt their thoughts, which can be equally bad). Screen partitions dividing up the floor of a vast, echoing echoing aircraft hangar like venue with other panelists trying to out-shout each other over the dividers do not work. Neither do rooms located adjacent to a hall full of happy clappy types holding a revival sing-along, or a band rehearsing for the evening concert, or a disco. (I speak from experience of all of the above.)

The room should not be too hot or too cold. In practice, this means it needs working air conditioning or central heating and windows that open. Sauna huts are not suitable venues for hour-long discourses on the philosophical roots of H. P. Lovecraft; refrigerator warehouses don't work too well either. General rule of thumb: it will be warmer in the room when there is a packed audience inside. Human beings put out roughly 0.1-0.2kW of heat per person, so an audience of 60 people is like having three electric fan heaters going at full blast. If it's warm when it's empty, it will be unpleasantly hot when it's full.

Lighting helps. Not too much lighting; at one recent convention the main function area had a stage, and stage lighting — and a low ceiling, so that there was a bank of stage lights glaring at the panelists from just above eye level: every time I glanced at the audience I ended up with purple after-images burned into my retinas. If the panelists are asking for sun screen and mirrorshades, this is a bad sign.

There needs to be a table at the front, with chairs for all the participants (too many chairs is okay; not enough chairs is bad), and chairs for the audience facing the participants. Putting the participants on a stage or illuminating them with floodlights is optional, but the audience need to be able to see their faces. A circle of chairs with nobody in a position of authority sounds nice and politically correct, but once you get past about 20 seats it gets unmanageably big; also, it encourages audience participation ... which may not be what you want, if you're running a panel where some talking heads are meant to be holding forth from positions of authority.

If there are seats for more than about 20 people in the audience, you need to provide the speakers with amplification. Whether you think they need amplification or not in that particular room is irrelevant — some of your speakers will have laryngitis, some will be shy and speak in a low whisper, and on occasion it may be necessary for the moderator on the panel to firmly overrule a too-enthusiastic member of the audience.

Ideally each speaker needs a microphone in front of them while they're on stage. (Wired mikes in front of each occupied seat at the table are fine.) Sharing a mike with a fellow speaker who has halitosis is Not Fun. Neither is playing capture-the-flag with an obsessive hoarder who has got the Talking Stick and won't let go. If it's a big room (more than 20 seats) and the panel is going to take questions, budget for an extra radio mike and a gofer who can scurry around the audience, otherwise the audience are going to be treated to the panelists answering questions that they can't hear.

It's a good idea to have pre-printed name plates available for the panelists to stick on the table in front of the audience, so that the audience can tell them apart. Such name plates (or just folded pieces of paper) need to be IN LARGE PRINT so that people at the back of the room can read them.

The panelists will probably need something to drink if they're talking for an hour. A jug of water and some paper cups are an absolute minimum; make sure there are enough clean cups for each panelist, and keep the jug full during the panel. Too much is better than too little; estimate half a litre of water per panelist per hour and you won't go far wrong. Beer, coffee, and other liquids also work well and a well-run conventions usually have a green room with staff ready to take orders from panelists, and deliver their chosen beverages.

Okay, that covers the environment (albeit minimally, without much depth; I may have to add to this as I go on). Tomorrow I'll talk about the care and handling of panelists.



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