Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Hype (Or: Out of the Loop)

Guy Kay sent me an email today pointing me to a post he's written (today, October 3) on his "Ysabel Journal" at Brightweavings, his official website. My goodness, I've been so wrapped up in fallout from some SFWA issues that I was completely unaware that any of this was happening (Guy points to here as a good place to get the complete rundown). Hell, I was completely unaware of a whole bunch of these blogs, and yet I already read too many damned blogs every day.

I'm not telling secrets out of school by stating that Guy isn't much of a chest-thumper. Early on in this post he even mentions his "ambivalence to the marketing process." But he has been working hard with his publishers to find new and innovative ways to market Ysabel, the upcoming novel. Some of those ways have to do with the web, of course; an online presence seems to be required these days, be it in the form of reviews or in a voice for the author.

But what constitutes new and innovative? Yeah, these locations are new when viewed through the lens of history, but is anything really new? Words are written, words are read. About the only difference is that there is no extra cost for putting more of those words down on the screen, as opposed to how much it costs to print extra pages.

The ease of pumping out this verbosity also democratizes this business. Anybody and his dog can review books and stories. Of course, in many instances, "democratizes" means the same thing as "dumbs down." If anybody can have an opinion, everybody will. And while they're welcome to that opinion, it doesn't mean that I have to pay attention to it. The signal to noise ratio means that I can't even wade through the chaff to get to the wheat, but rather, I have to decide which pile of chaff to attempt.

If you've looked at the links supplied above, you'll see that this started with an accusation of bribery. There are some who would interpret that as mere hyperbole itself, and I suppose it could be so, but I'm firmly in the camp that the editor wasn't paying close attention and that those words should not have appeared in the first place. For sure, the appearance of a spiffy ARC is enough to make the heart race and the nipples get hard, but after that, the story itself still has to do the job.

But this is where this democratization comes into play again. Many people who review (both on the net and in print) refuse to review books they don't like, and will often not even finish those books. And of course, with so many people willing to review, you're also bound to find plenty of people who will like just about anything they read. There are people in this community who would read the phone book if dragons were listed in the white pages and if the yellow pages included listings for rocket ship repairs. Much of what people like this write becomes essentially meaningless the more they pile up the non-critical verbiage.

But who should care? All it means is that publishers and authors should be careful about where they send their books for attention. Toby Buckell and John Scalzi have both received favorable mention from Instapundit, which did create a pretty meaningful blip in their sales. And that's just a mention, not a review. I'm doubtful that any online review created as big a swing. Conversely, silly negative publicity can often be helpful to an author (and not that I'm recommending this to Guy, of course). I wonder if Scott Lynch has seen an increase in sales over this. It's my understanding that negative reviews (and the webstorm that followed) of Canadian author Janine Cross's Touched By Venom (including fixation on the phrase "venom cock") seem to have helped sales along quite nicely, thank you.

In the end, I don't think there are any real alternatives to honest hard work. If you're in the boat where you need to get attention, it helps to work your butt off, to be polite, to be a good conversationalist and make eye contact, and to maybe do like L.E Modesitt, Jr., who has told me that there's one particular bookstore in Salt Lake where he brings the staff treats like donuts every time he visits, which results in more hand sales. So yeah, maybe bribery is involved, but in a way that seems more sensible to me.

Bottom line is being published means being "out there", I guess, and the only toxic thing is being too paranoid about ANYONE saying ANYTHING but 100% good things about one's work. The atmosphere of terror fostered by the MBA crowd running publishing contributes to that, IMHO. Truth is people's tastes differ and anything 'different' (definition left for future debate) is always going to attract negative as well as positive attention.
It's hard to say, but bookscan shows that Touched by Venom didn't do as well as one might think, most of it before the word-of-mouth of how bad it was hit the boards.

Most Roc books of that same period performed much better:

To Serve and Submit, which reads like much of the same, sold almost twice as many copies.

Anne Bishop's Dreams Made Flesh sold ten times as many.

E. E. Knight's Dragon Champion sold six times as many.

And so on.

To me that means that the buzz really didn't do anything for it, but you never know . . .
Well, the buzz helped enough that sequels to Venom are forthcoming. I didn't read it, but there were folk out there who liked the book very much.

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