Delicious Extruded Media Product

Corn field...or content farm? You decide!

Corn field…or content farm? You decide!

Yesterday, Justin Landon posted an excellent article about Suvudu Universe and some of the problems with this particular model of content generation. I’ll wait while you all go read it.

Okay, up to speed?

As I was reading his article, I couldn’t help but think of content aggregators like The Huffington Post as well as other, similar, sites like Buzzfeed (I mean, I adore Dolly Parton but this is kind of ridiculous). And that’s not even going into the inversion of  the definition of content aggregator–eons ago in internet time, an aggregator was something that collected RSS feeds, something you curated for yourself; not something used to generate page views.

The way Suvudu Universe seems to work is extraordinarily similar to HuffPo and its ilk. Similar harvesting of content from elsewhere. Similar lack of compensation. Dubious business models that, as a dear friend says, resemble nothing more than extruded media product created by bots.

HuffPo (theoretically) makes money off all the pageviews that your blog post generated for their advertisers. You aren’t getting a cut of that advertising revenue or being paid directly for your contributions. At best, you’re getting exposure. Which doesn’t pay the bills.

This is bullshit–especially when it comes to original content.

As Landon correctly points out, the reprint market for non-fiction related to the speculative fiction field is vanishingly small–I can only think of two markets off the top of my head: Strange Horizons and the Speculative Fiction: The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary essay collection. Obviously, there are other collections of essays being published as well, but those tend to be centered around specific topics and, if not pop-culture focused, rather academic in nature.

There are some markets for original non-fiction, but even then–they’re limited and very specific in what they want, if it’s even possible to figure out what they do want (I can’t seem to find any guidelines for Tor.com on non-fiction other than an email address, although their fiction guidelines are quite comprehensive). And then there are markets that don’t accept unsolicited non-fiction submissions or queries at all. So the only space most non-fiction writers have is spaces they own.

I am aware that this sounds like so much whining. It’s not. I enjoy writing commentary and reviews and I was well aware that the markets were limited when I got into this–I’ve been blogging in one form or another since 2000 and I know that it’s precious few people who get to make a living at it. I have absolutely no delusions that I am one of those people.

At the same time, though, I do not want my words–my work–to be devalued. And devaluation is precisely what sites like Suvudu Universe promise.

When Random House tried this nonsense with fiction–the terrible contracts for their digital-first imprintswriters’ associations and their members spoke up and were able to use their considerable leverage to convince them to offer (slightly) better terms. As critics and reviewers (and bloggers!), we have no association to join and no leverage and without the voices of other writers, we will not get better terms.

I haven’t really seen anyone other than Justin Landon talking about Suvudu Universe and their exploitative terms in details since they launched this “service” at the beginning of the month and I think it’s important that more people talk about it.

We hear so much about fiction writers being taken advantage of by vanity or scam publishers–where are the people speaking up about the advantage being taken of non-fiction writers by Suvudu Universe?

I’ve struggled long and hard to claim the word writer for myself–and part of that is an acknowledgement that this is work and that work should be fairly compensated. And I am the one who gets to decide what fair is–not content aggregators like Suvudu Universe.

Sidelines, Lois McMaster Bujold

Sidelines

Sidelines

As I mentioned last week, I recently picked up a copy of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sidelines, her collection of speeches, essays, travel notes, and other bits and pieces she’s collected over the past 30 years or so.  While I pretty much mined the genre stuff out of the book for the post linked to above, there’s still plenty of interesting stuff in there, and while I think this book will appeal primarily to the Bujold Compleatist, anyone interested in writing or in a peek inside how a writer works will likely enjoy this as well, with one caveat: if you’re not familiar with Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan Saga, you’ll miss a lot of the nuance in what she’s saying.

The book is divided into easy, obvious sections: there are convention and other speeches where Bujold was the Guest of Honor or an award winner, and there are essays written for a variety of purposes—Hugo nominations, blog posts for Tor or Eos or the Baen Bar, local papers, etc., afterwards and forwards to omnibus editions of the books, travel notes covering three overseas trips (to Russia, Croatia, and Finland), and a few other things, such as the suggested reading order for the Vorkosigan books.  Everything is clearly labeled, and every piece comes with a paragraph or more of commentary to put that particular speech or essay into some context for the reader.  If you own the omnibus editions to the Vorkosigan books, you likely have a whole section of this book; likewise, Bujold, like any wily writer, reuses parts of previous writings in newer ones, both to save herself some time and because, hey, if she said it well once, it likely bears repeating.  So there is some overlap among the selections, a fact she herself notes from time to time.

As a Vorkosigan nut, I was mostly interested in those pieces that talked about Miles and the Miles books, and there are a lot of them.  Bujold ranges freely over her early years when she first began writing that series, how she overshot the ending of Shards of Honor and had to go back and find its ending, how she knew Aral and Cordelia would have a crippled child, and how her basic premise for dealing with the series has always been to make sure each book could stand independently to a great extent, and how her plans for each book basically involved her asking herself “what’s the worst thing I could do to this character?” and then doing it to him.  It’s an interesting glimpse into how she works.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, she also spends a great deal of time talking about Falling Free, which is set in the same world as the Vorkosigan books but takes place much earlier.  Bujold seems very fond of the quaddies, of Leo Graf, and of this particular book, which was her effort to make science the hero of the story instead of the villain and to explore the consequences of what happens to obsolete technology when that technology is bioengineered humans.  There is an entire essay devoted to Falling Free, a book I have not read for some years.  I’ll be rectifying that soon now that I have a new way to think about it.

Fans of her Sharing Knife and Chalion books will also find much to enjoy here, particularly her musings on how she set out to tackle the romance genre in the Sharing Knife books—there is, in fact, a set of six short essays she wrote for Eos on these books that explore the various themes in them and what she was hoping to achieve when she wrote them that I found both informative and interesting, and I should note that I have not read that series.

Of somewhat less interest were the travel notes—Bujold herself likens their inclusion to “looking at someone’s travel slides” and to some extent, that’s pretty accurate, although she clearly enjoyed her travels and glimpses into other cultures.  But they tend to be a matter of “They took me here, I did a signing, there were translation issues, I ate a meal, I did a signing, I gave a talk, I was carried off by fans, I fell into bed and got up and did it all again the next day” which, you know, if you’ve never been there, yeah.  Someone else’s vacation pictures.

Mostly, though, what I really enjoyed were her thoughts on writing, on genre issues, and what books are: “The book is not an object on the table; it is an event in the reader’s mind.”  True, and it leads to this thought she has later in the same essay:

“As a writer, I am keenly aware that I am not in control of half my art. The exact same text one reader finds exciting, subtle, nuanced, funny and moving, the next reader may find boring, dull, or unmemorable.”

That particular quote made me think very hard about what it means to be a reviewer, actually—not to get all sidetracked from what I’m supposed to be doing here, which is telling you if checking out Sidelines is worth your time, but my dilemma has always been just how much of my own prejudices and preferences should go into a review.  One of the things I like about writing here is that I can interject my own likes and dislikes and warn the reader of my own biases (note: I hate elves in books).  I try to be objective, I try to address expectations.  But unless you know me and what I like and don’t like, what I find interesting (like a 350 page book on how one writer I happen to admire a lot approaches her craft) you may in fact find mind-numbing.  And it really can’t be helped.

That said, I really did enjoy reading this—I found it enlightening in a lot of ways, and on a lot of different levels, and her comments about genre, about valuing any book based solely on its “social utility” (her words), and about how genres can be made to work together were especially thought-provoking.  But I’m a rhetorician by training, and this kind of rhetorical and narrative examination fascinates me.  If you’re not interested in that kind of thing, or in Miles Vorkosigan, then you might find this far less interesting than I did.

The Fry Chronicles, Stephen Fry

The Fry Chronicles

The Fry Chronicles

“If a thing can be said in ten words, I may be relied upon to take a hundred to say it. I ought to apologize for that. I ought to prune, pare and extirpate excess growth, but I will not. I like words – strike that, I love words – and while I am fond of the condensed and economical use of them in poetry, in song lyrics, in Twitter, in good journalism and smart advertising, I love the luxuriant profusion and mad scatter of them too.”

So says Stephen Fry in the introduction to the second volume of his autobiography, The Fry Chronicles.  Fry’s love of words drips off the pages, and I warn you that you may have to resort to a dictionary now and then, as I did, when you come across some obscure word you’ve never seen before in your life.  So be it, though.  I had no objection to learning a few new words either.  I love them as much as Fry does.  And the above quote serves notice that the reader is going to be treated to something more than a dull wash of facts herded into chapters.  No.  Fry’s narrative style, like his prose, falls under the “luxuriant profusion and mad scatter” heading as well.  He runs off on tangents, describing in loving detail his rooms at Cambridge or the embarrassment of turning into a bit of a show-off once he started earning regular checks for his work.  Rather than being annoyed by these tangents, however, I found them charming—like we were having a really good chat.

The first volume of autobiography that Fry wrote, Moab is my Washpot, deals with his childhood.  The Fry Chronicles starts off with a bit of an overview of those years, just to catch you up, then picks up with the time just prior to his his getting his act together enough to win a scholarship to Cambridge (Queens’ College), where he reads English literature and meets Emma Thompson, who introduces him eventually to Hugh Laurie.  Fry talks lovingly of his time at Cambridge, but he also introduces the idea that he felt, when he first arrived, very much like he shouldn’t have been there—academically, certainly, but also socially and personally.  His family is solidly middle class, he has a criminal record (he spent three months in jail for credit card fraud as a teenager), and he’s been chucked out of more schools than he’s stayed in.  He does a good job of conveying the discomfort he initially felt, and he’s smart enough to know that he needs to get involved to build a social network.  He auditions for a play and is surprised to find himself cast.  He continues in this pursuit, and even writes a play that is produced and is, to his amazement, wildly successful.  He seems to have devoted little time to his academics, but is good at exams anyway, finishing with a second class degree.  To be fair, he’s a little more devoted than Laurie apparently was.  Hugh Laurie read Anthropology and Archeology, and Fry wryly comments upon their graduation “I think he would be the first to admit that you know more about Archeology and Anthropology than he does.”

If you’re one of those people with an insatiable curiosity about the great English universities and how they work, you’ll enjoy Fry’s descriptions of his time there—it all sounds like jolly good fun, and it’s quite informative about the system as well.  But what’s most important about this time in Fry’s life is what he discovered about himself: he was a facile and versatile writer, was good at learning things and enjoyed learning things, and that the skills he honed there and the friendships he formed would lead him to a varied, interesting career that he never saw coming.  He assumed he end up teaching in a prep school somewhere, not as half of a highly successful comedy writing team with Hugh Laurie and as someone whose skills were sought after practically upon finishing his degree.

And really, if we could all get that out of college, that would be enough:

“Education is the sum of what students teach each other in between lectures and seminars. You sit in each other’s rooms and drink coffee – I suppose it would be vodka and Red Bull now – you share enthusiasms, you talk a lot of wank about politics, religion, art and the cosmos and then you go to bed, alone or together according to taste. I mean, how else do you learn anything, how else do you take your mind for a walk?”

So true.

The second half of the book, roughly, offers an overview of the very beginnings of Fry’s career as a performer and writer, which seems to have happened with very little effort on his part, although in truth, the time he put in with the Cambridge Footlights had a great deal to do with it.  As did his friendship with Emma Thompson, who had an agent even while a student—her agent took on Fry and Laurie as well after The Footlights’ original review, The Cellar Tapes, was a hit and approved by another of his famous clients, Rowan Atkinson.  But Fry also found himself in demand for writing jobs, which he had a great deal of trouble refusing—he wrote articles, magazine headlines, comedy sketches with Laurie and Ben Elton, and revised and updated the book for Me and My Girl, which later went on to great success not only in London’s West End, but also on Broadway.  His chronicles end with the beginnings of the Blackadder show and his first snort of cocaine.

All of that is very interesting in and of itself, but that’s that wash of bald fact.  It’s cushioned among the much more interesting revelations that Fry boldly lays out: his self-loathing, his insecurity, his desire for fame, his bipolar disorder, and his addictive personality.  In fact, if this book is about anything besides a chronicling of his years at Cambridge and as an up-and-comer in the entertainment world, it’s about his string of addictions—to sugar, to tobacco, to working non-stop, to technology, and, he hints at the end, to cocaine—and how he just sort of lives from one addiction to the next.  He gave up sugar, only to get hooked on tobacco.  His workaholic tendencies led to his having enough money to buy computers and fax machines when they were rare things to personally own.  And so forth.  And as he recounts these instances, the self-hatred he talks about regularly simmers beneath the surface, disguised by the charming narrative voice and the slick turn of phrase.  And he’s well-aware that many a reader is going to find this incongruity annoying as hell because, on the face of it, he has everything:

“It does not suit the world to hear that people who are leading a high life, an enviable life, a privileged life are as miserable most days as anybody else, despite the fact that it must be obvious they would be – given that we are all agreed that money and fame do not bring happiness. Instead the world would prefer to enjoy the idea, against what it knows to be true, that wealth and fame do in fact insulate and protect against misery and it would rather we shut up if we are planning to indicate otherwise.”

I didn’t find it annoying.  I found it honest.  And it’s one of the reasons I enjoyed this book as much as I did—who wants an autobiography that’s just a string of anecdotes and remembrances?   Not me.  I want to know how it felt, how it feels.  And why not reveal all of those insecurities–in the end, Stephen Fry is a human being.  If the reader feels let down to discover a favorite entertainment personality has feet of clay, then the reader needs to get over it.  It’s nice to know I’m in such good company with mine.  And while I’m not one to pour my insecurities all over the written page, Fry has no issue with laying his feelings  bare, to be examined and critiqued and mocked.  As he says at one point:

“Between funny and witty

Falls the shadow”

It’s the shadows here that make this book, and his life, so interesting.

And one last thing: this is, as befits the work of a truly gifted comedy writer, a really funny book.  There are laugh-out-loud moments and phrases and stories that genuinely soften some of the more sad and honest moments.  My only wish was that there was more Hugh Laurie–because if you read here with any regularity you know I am in lurve with Hugh Laurie–but Fry rightly points out that “It is not for me to go blabbing about his life and loves, personal habits, mannerisms and modes of behaviour, is it?”  Probably not.  But I kinda wish he had fewer principles on that score…

Looking Forward: 2013

Watching the Dark, the 20th Alan Banks novel

Watching the Dark, the 20th Alan Banks novel

If you’re anything like me where books are concerned, then the start of a new year brings all sorts of excitement because it means potential new offerings from my favorite authors. Always a squee-worthy thought for me.

So here’s a (very) brief list of what I’m looking forward to in 2013:

Proof of Guilt, the 15th Ian Rutledge novel

Proof of Guilt, the 15th Ian Rutledge novel

• January 8th brings the latest Peter Robinson entry in his long-running Alan Banks series, Watching the Dark.
• January 29th will find me devouring Proof of Guilt, the latest installment in Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge series.

Those two things alone would make Donna a happy girl. But also on January 29th, I will be reading that Charles Todd whilst anticipating Out of Circulation, the next installment in Miranda James’ charming Cat in the Stacks series, which also has the 29th as a release date. And I will get to follow that up with more catly goodness in the form of Sofie Kelly’s latest, Cat Trick, which comes out the very next week (And in the Yay! Department, Kelly has another title coming out in early October).

Dearie

Dearie

And that’s just for the first month. I really can’t wait to see what the rest of 2013 brings. Anything in particular that you’re looking forward to? Hoping for? Me, I am hearing that that Pioneer Girl annotation will be out sometime this summer, and I am hoping that James Kaplan is going to get around to the second volume in his Sinatra biography. And I have to get caught up on a few other things. I have yet to read Elfhome, Wen Spencer’s latest entry in her Tinker series (a personal favorite, especially since it’s set in my old hometown of Pittsburgh), or Tina Connolly’s Ironskin, which has been on my to-read list for a bit now. And I so want to read Dearie, which I have heard good things about. As Julia Child is one of my idols, that’s definitely been on my must-read list for a while. I am soooo far behind.

Wishing you a 2013 filled with peace and happiness and, of course, mountains of excellent books!

 

Linkspam, 11/9/12 Edition

Jeremy Brett as Dracula. OMG.

Jeremy Brett as Dracula. Because WHY THE HELL NOT? Backdrop by Edward Gorey. I may swoon.

A bit light again this week–this time due to the election, the DMV, and the day job eating my life.