Monday, 31 October 2011

Eat the strawberries

It certainly isn’t an overstatement to say I’m melodramatic. If I read something in a book that I find particularly inspiring, I’m likely to respond to it in quite a spectacular way. Say, for example, wanting it tattooed upon my person (by which I mean myself, of course, I don’t actually own a person just so I have somewhere to put inspirational quotes).

Bearing in mind my tendency for melodrama, there have been two particular passages in two wonderful books that changed me.

The first is in American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I have always been a careful person, sometimes at the expense of trying new things. I still firmly hold the belief that I would find the one corner that existed in the Trebor Softmints universe and, with the dexterity of a wardrobe trying to cartwheel down a flight of stairs, proceed to bounce off it using only my eyeball. However, there is a part in American Gods where the main character, Shadow, seizes the moment, with no thought for the future and because he can, and because he should. He recalls a fable and suddenly the meaning of this tale clicks with him. Something clicked in me too, and I had an instant of clarity where I realized that not every little thing in life requires a thorough worrying over, or even needs to have more meaning beyond the act itself. This doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about impaling myself while walking down the street, but I do, just occasionally, stop to eat the strawberries (though I might wash them first).

Still, there was a tale he had read once, long ago, as a small boy: the story of a traveler who had slipped down a cliff, with man-eating tigers above him and a lethal fall below him, who managed to stop his fall halfway down the side of the cliff, holding on for dear life. There was a clump of strawberries beside him, and certain death above him and below.
What should he do? went the question. And the reply was, Eat the strawberries.

My response to the next passage was, if possible, even more self-indulgent. I was going through a breakup. It was tragic. The universe became gaping void. Diet Coke lost its taste. It was, in short, pretty bad. Then I ordered the latest Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. It was White Night. I booked the day off work. I wandered into a café. It sucked. I felt too raw to sit in the sunshine reading. I went inside. I read to distract myself from myself, and as joylessly and painfully as possible. I thought that Butcher would be a frivolous tonic. And then I read this.

We still hadn't learned, though, that growing up is all about getting hurt. And then getting over it. You hurt. You recover. You move on. Odds are pretty good you're just going to get hurt again. But each time, you learn something.

Each time, you come out of it a little stronger, and at some point you realize that there are more flavors of pain than coffee. There's the little empty pain of leaving something behind - graduating, taking the next step forward, walking out of something familiar and safe into the unknown. There's the big, whirling pain of life upending all of your plans and expectations. There’s the sharp little pains of failure, and the more obscure aches of successes that didn't give you what you thought they would. There are the vicious, stabbing pains of hopes being torn up. The sweet little pains of finding others, giving them your love, and taking joy in their life they grow and learn. There's the steady pain of empathy that you shrug off so you can stand beside a wounded friend and help them bear their burdens.

And if you're very, very lucky, there are a very few blazing hot little pains you feel when you realize that you are standing in a moment of utter perfection, an instant of triumph, or happiness, or mirth, which at the same time cannot possibly last - and yet will remain with you for life.

Everyone is down on pain, because they forget something important about it: Pain is for the living. Only the dead don't feel it.

Pain is a part of life. Sometimes it's a big part, and sometimes it isn't, but either way, it's a part of the big puzzle, the deep music, the great game. Pain does two things: It teaches you, tells you that you're alive. Then it passes away and leaves you changed. It leaves you wiser, sometimes. Sometimes it leaves you stronger. Either way, pain leaves its mark, and everything important that will ever happen to you in life is going to involve it in one degree or another.’

That’s right, Butcher and Gaiman? They’re all about me.

Monday, 17 October 2011

TV review: The Fades

At the risk of hyperbole, BBC 3’s new supernatural drama The Fades is just about the most amazing piece of British television I’ve ever seen.


Quite an assertion, I think my reader will agree.


Here’s my supporting statement:


WHAT IT IS ABOUT:


When awkward teen, 17-year-old Paul (Iain de Caestecker) stumbles across a zombie-like creature attacking two humans in an abandoned shopping centre, he soon realises that the survivor, Neil (Johnny Harris), holds the answers to the apocalyptic dreams he’s been having. Neil tells Paul he’s an Angelic like him: a person who can see the fades, i.e., dead people. Paul’s apocalyptic dreams were visions of the future. Angelic Sarah (Natalie Dormer) also experienced them before she was killed by the Angelic Killer, a corpse-like fade. Sarah now haunts her husband, Mark (Tom Ellis), because she, like so many others, was unable to ‘Ascend’ to death (which, like life, isn’t easy). The mysterious blockage to ascension that began nearly 100 years ago has left countless angry fades trapped on earth. The dead continue to grow old and rot, unable to open doors, or interact with their loved ones without intense pain. However, the Angelic Killer has found a way to take on physical form once more and reverse the rot by first drinking human blood, and then chowing down on human flesh. The fade is determined to wreak revenge on the Angelics, and the human race in general. He starts by recruiting an undead army, taking his first steps towards creating the ash-filled wasteland in Paul’s dreams.


Finding out he’s an Angelic is only the start of Paul’s problems. His ability to heal people, which causes moths to crawl from his mouth, makes the tiny band of Angelics believe he is the only one who can save the world. There’s also the inconvenient thing that happens to him when he ejaculates. After confiding with his best friend, the pop culture referencing Mac (Daniel Kaluuya), much to Neil’s irritation Paul becomes determined to live a normal teenager’s life. Particularly because, despite risking the wrath of his caustic non-identical twin, Anna (Lilly Loveless), he has found illicit love in the shape of the elfin Jay (Sophie Wu), his sister’s best friend.


Here’s why you could love it too:


It’s slick, funny, powerful, disgusting, true, heart wrenching, heart-warming, at times terrifying, unique and even beautiful stuff. The script is sharp, and neat, and tight.


With Loveless, Kaluuya and, in later episodes (spoilers), Joe Dempsie, The Fades is a bit of a Skins fest. But that’s because the producers know how to mine the best young talent (and possibly, regarding Skins, the only talent).


Here’s why you should really love it:


Iain de Caestecker’s performance as Paul is a nuanced phenomenon. You really believe his struggle to stay sane against the odds, and to understand his place in the world. But what’s more incredible, is the relationship between Paul and Mac. Kaluuya shone as Tealeaf in Psychoville, and in The Fades he positively gleams. His Mac is a heartbreaking bundle of idiosyncrasies, fragility and fierce loyalty for his best friend. His tendency to reel off trivia in the face of danger masks deeper emotions, like love and grief, which brim to the surface in all the right places. His ability to wrench your heart is as flawless as his comic timing. Together, the pair are a beautiful thing to watch.


There might be some negatives, but they’re minor. Paul isn’t always on the ball when it comes to asking the important questions, such as ‘How do the moths get into my throat, and why are they crawling out of it?’ However, this is probably something to do with the mystery that writer and creator Jack Thorne clearly loves frustrating his viewers with. And, let’s face it, it’s what keeps us coming back for more.


BBC iPlayer currently has it on series catch up. The rest of us (adults and teens alike) are on episode 5 of 6 this Wednesday at 10 pm on BBC 3. And if you’re not yet fully convinced, it references, of all things, this. What’s not to love?





Sunday, 9 October 2011

The digital convert

I am currently suffering from an escalating problem. On bowing shelves, under the bed, beside the bed, at the foot of the bed, in my wardrobe, under my shoes, above my clothes, beneath my clothes, in my drawers, between my DVDs, my book collection is growing. It has gotten to the point where when I finish a book I chuck it over my shoulder into to cascading pile of my latest reads that lines the back of my bed like an abandoned game of dominos. As a hoarder by nature I live in genuine fear that I am one day going to be one of those old ladies who builds secondary corridors out of old reading material. I will be forced to spend a large portion of my day navigating the expanding maze of epic fantasy just to reach my settee in time to shout at Noel Edmond’s Deal or No Deal (somebody has to).

In my darkest moments, I think of the multiplying collection of cats I’ll have lost amongst the stacks who have given up all hope of rescue and have taken to building their homes out of my collection of ‘90s James Herberts, which they’re slowly but surely teaching themselves to read. It’ll be like The Rats, but with cats. The Cats. I’m going to be found with my arm gnawed off, buried beneath a pile of Robin Hobbs, my only legacy the army of felines that have evolved enough to survive nuclear apocalypse.

The real issue is that I can’t throw books away. It would be like throwing your first child away, just because you’ve had another. It just isn’t done.

My other problem is that I know the solution, and it isn’t one I am particularly happy with. I should convert to digital. Buy an eReader. Get over the printed word.

If I put so much value in the physical copy, if I really class myself as a lover of beautiful covers, clever designs, the tactile reading experience, the smell of a page, then why is my ever-growing collection living rough in its haphazard piles?

I’m either going to have to give up and buy a cat now so I can practice losing it, or suck it up and become a digital convert. It's me or the books.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Write what you love

Since finishing my dissertation I have been wondering what to do with this blog. Admittedly one thought I had was ‘abandon it to the ether and run wildly into the night’, but after a brief, dizzy bout of freedom in which I drank enough Diet Coke to dissolve an elephant, I’ve come back to my senses and my laptop.

I asked for some advice from a much-respected source about how to make the switch from semi-serious dissertation blog to mostly personal, while still staying fairly close to all things books and SFF. His advice was simple yet perfect. Thus: ‘Whatever you write about you have to love it and be genuinely interested because that will seep through into whatever you write’.

This might sound particularly dumb but I was so blinded by other things that I didn’t actually consider ‘write what you love’. So that made me pause. What did I love? SFF books, Jim Butcher and Diet Coke, obviously. But is that enough? Time will tell.

So, welcome, gentle reader. If you journey beyond this post, you will find my dissertation ramblings about Science Fiction and Fantasy publishing and marketing ploys. If you journey forth with me, I can promise slightly broader ramblings, and considerably less talk about dissertations. However, I can’t promise I will refrain from mentioning My Love for Jim Butcher or Diet Coke.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Raise your Diet Coke for a toast to the Big D: I'm finally done.

Well the Big D, and the Publishing MA, is officially over. Celebrations have been had. Diet Coke has been drunk. It’s definitely been an experience, as well as an education. The first thing I did when I finished was buy three books. Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris, because I used his views on stigma in my dissertation. Simon Morden’s Equations of life, because he said I had more front than Blackpool (it is ace, by the way, Equations that is, although Blackpool has its charm). Patrick RothfussThe Name of the Wind, because it was the subject of my most beguiling dissertation statistic: that 80 percent of RPG gamers cite it as their favourite book.

Because of this dissertation (aka the Big D) I’ve interviewed some of the most inspiring people in science fiction and fantasy publishing, I’ve done work experience with Voyager and Orbit and I’ve embarrassed myself at the London Book Fair (it was worth it).

This blog was started in order to force myself to do research for the Big D on a regular basis. Any news article, blog post/ tweet/ passing comment that vaguely related to my topic – the alleged stigma about science fiction and fantasy publishing - was collected and even occasionally commented on. It was a giddy ride, and at least one of you even got to journey with me on the Dissertation Express. Well this is the last stop on the whistle stop tour, and it’s time to have a coffee, maybe even a Diet Coke, and perhaps a scone, and Reflect on What I Have Learned. I think that my reader will agree that we’ve both learned so much, been occasionally moved, and even grown a little as a result of my dissertation. Oh, and if you’re wondering but you can’t face going back over the 59 painstakingly written posts on the topic: yes, there is a stigma. At least, that’s what my two markers get to find out after 21,987 words on the subject. They will simply love me.

So, without further ado, I have learned (apart from how to make the perfect toast, peanut butter, honey and banana combination):

That if you accidentally use the top image that comes up if you Google ‘Misfits series 2’, you force 649 people to read your lame-arse review.

That people who play RPGs (in one shop, on one occasion) don’t take too kindly to being called geeks.

If you follow Philip Pullman to the bathroom, he will act with dignity and aplomb and then pretend this never happened.

Orbit kicks digital-marketing ass.

China Miéville has a giant brain.

I idolise Kate Griffin.

I really love Jim Butcher (tag stats: ‘my love for Jim Butcher’: 10 times; ‘the Dresden Files’: 3 times; ‘Chris McGrath’ cover artist: 3 times).

People are strange.

Ben Aaronovitch ticks all my boxes.

Chloe Neill’s Some Girls Bite does not.

I am not great at laminating under pressure (sorry, HarperCollins).

Hobo symbols excite me.

And finally, people do read science fiction and fantasy. They just don't always know it.

Monday, 1 August 2011

This fantasy business. Dragons and what-not. Over-rated, if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it.

*Writing from somewhere in a hermetically sealed room* With 10,000 words and three weeks to go (*reaches shakily for the Diet Coke*), I thought that this week I would treat you all to the results from my questionnaires about stigma and science fiction and fantasy publishing. While I acknowledge that it is good to provide a balanced result, I’ll happily admit that when I sent the surveys out what I ideally wanted someone to respond with was this:

‘I hate science fiction and fantasy with a passion, it’s just swords and sorcery and Tolkien/Twilight rip-offs anyways, right? I’m just grateful that it stays the hell away from our precious literary awards. My bookshelves heave with long-listed titles. If I see some middle-aged loser reading a trashy fantasy book on the tube, I move seats in case they try to invite me back to their parents’ house to play Dungeons and Dragons in their basement ‘apartment’ while their mum makes us sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Did I mention it was lowbrow?’

And repeat times 100 and I would have had full justification for writing 20,000 words on the damaging effect of stigma on the genre fiction market. HOWEVER, obviously that wasn’t going to be the case *tears up dissertation plan*, but that doesn’t mean that some of the results weren’t curious.


So, from 200 people and two different surveys, drum roll please (you'll be pleased to know I've used pie charts):


THE RESULTS


Here's the breakdown of who people view are the type of readers the market is aimed at:


And here's why people choose not to read science fiction and fantasy:
Wait for the curious part.



Prepare to squint in amazement. Here's what those same people say they've enjoyed reading:


Notice anything (apart from it being really, really small)?



That's right, eagle-eyed reader, they all contain science fiction and/or fantasy elements.



I'll leave you with my favourite response (from a good friend, I found out. Yes reader, I have a friend):



(In response to a question about which covers they prefer) ‘They all look the same – dragons and shit. I seriously wouldn’t read any of them.’


Can I put ‘shit’ in my dissertation?

Saturday, 23 July 2011

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks


*Writing from somewhere in a hermetically sealed room* As I am now in the brain-melting throes of writing my dissertation (12,000 words and four weeks to go), these round ups are focused on what dedicated SFF UK imprints are doing to digitally market themselves, their books and their authors to their fans and wider readerships.


Gollancz: have recently announced they’re making the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, ‘the definitive reference work in the field’, available free online. In another step towards helping more genre books reach wider audiences, and helping audiences to reach more books, Gollancz are launching the SF Gateway. It’s going to be the ‘world’s largest digital SF library, which will make thousands of out-of-print titles by classic genre authors available as eBooks’ (so not an intergalactic gateway to other such gateways, but still pretty neat). Available to access this autumn, the project has been headed by Gollancz’s digital publisher, Darren Nash. This really is an amazing venture, and really utilises the digital form. In a further step towards digital domination, Gollancz are also teaming up with pulp website Good Show Sir, with the goal of making every cover linkable to the actual text by 2012 (this last part might be a lie, but they’re missing out on a trick – who wouldn’t want to read about Nazi gnomes?!).

Angry Robot Books: are back again this week because I’ve been writing the section in my dissertation (known henceforth as the ‘Big D’) about how negative perceptions of the fantasy genre are often linked to cheap, and badly written, swords and sorcery fiction from around the 1950s. This was otherwise known as ‘pulp’ fiction (so-called due to the cheap wood pulp paper that enabled the printing of several key fantasy and science fiction magazines around that time). The Big D points out that publishers have been trying to put their sordid, scantily-clad maidens past behind them. Commissioning editors who were interviewed for the Big D all agree wholeheartedly that negative perceptions are linked to the covers for these texts (please see Nazi gnomes cover for reference). Art Directors and the like have been working for years to rebrand SFF away from these ‘pulp’ covers, only returning to them in a retro, ironic fashion. I write all of this because this week, Angry Robot announced the signing of swords and sorcery author Paul S Kemp. Kemp is ‘unashamedly a fan of the classic ‘swords and sorcery’ fantasy’. His series of novels will be bringing ‘swords and sorcery right up to date’. But with a few key changes. It’s about thieves and treasure hunters, who are the new assassins (Douglas Hulick’s Tales of the Kin helped with that), and Angry Robot are keen to emphasise that it uses ‘very modern language’. I’ve done a few questionnaires for my essay, and people generally find the language and names used (see Tolkien’s works for detail) off-putting when it comes to reading fantasy, and so would rather not. Could more books of this ilk being published, with modern covers, modern language and trending themes, be part of the key of helping SFF to reach wider audiences, without the need for a HBO series?

I will leave you with a quote from H. P. Lovecraft on the matter of being published by pulp magazines (which he was): ‘the field is so repugnant to me that it’s about the last way I’d ever choose to gain shelter and clothing and nourishment.’ Beautiful.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

*Writing from somewhere in a hermetically sealed room* As I am now writing my dissertation/dragging it out screaming, these round ups are focused on what dedicated SFF UK imprints are doing to digitally market themselves, their books and their authors to their fans and wider readerships.


Angry Robot Books: have always done things a bit differently, and prided themselves on it (while still managing to publish this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award winner, Lauren Beukes). Normally you have to take pains to point out (usually in a 5,000 word essay) the brand of a publisher. ‘Look,’ you might say (but less casual, it is an essay), ‘This publisher has been subtly putting their mark on their books for years because in the left-hand corner, they usually sneak in a little swirl design that could be interpreted (by the more optimistic) as the corner of their logo, without being too off-putting to the general reader.’ Angry Robot, on the other hand, have thought ‘sod the general reader’, or, more likely, ‘the general reader will never read our blog, they will never know the true extent to our geekiness.’ So they have taken the notion of the publisher as a brand and run wildly into the night with it. The Angry Robot Army just got a uniform. From Zazzle UK or USA you can now purchase an Angry Robot hat. And they haven’t stopped there (why would they?). You can buy a t-shirt (either ‘Robot’ or ‘Angry’, depending on what relates to you), a Zoo City t-shirt, an iPad case, a skateboard (they have a mixed target audience), bag, mug, pins, a baby grow (get ‘em while they’re young), and, my personal favourite, a skin to (irony alert) make your phone look a bit like a robot. Maybe that’s the secret to branding. Pick a logo your readers will want to wear.






Orbit: granted, this may be something only I (at the height of my dissertation fever) find fascinating, but back in the 1970s horror author James Herbert was not very happy when his publishers, the New English Library, were marketing his work as pulp. He threw in some political and thriller tropes, and intended to elevate his titles above this ‘throwaway’ fiction status. Now, Orbit are revelling in the pulp. Their covers for Philip Palmers books are absolutely gorgeous, with their plastic figurines, bold, white typography and block, vibrant colours, and the great Lauren Panepinto, Art Director, is ecstatically happy about their pulp connotations: ‘His writing has this fabulous pulp sci-fi feel to it’. In my research, I’ve read a lot about authors, editors and readers bemoaning the popular culture representation of sci-fi, that it is all adolescent ray guns and space battles (extreme paraphrasing). But Orbit are embracing it, and pushing this retro ‘pulp’ writing unashamedly, without attaching the throwaway tag so often associated with it. They achieve this rather well by quoting a Guardian review of Palmer’s Red Claw in the post announcing the book’s launch, which states: ‘Red Claw is a rare treat, an intelligent action adventure replete with intellectual rigour, human insight and superb storytelling.’ If this is the modern day pulp, then sci-fi has come a long way.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks





As I am now writing my dissertation (ha!) these round ups are focused on what dedicated SFF UK imprints are doing to digitally market themselves, their books and their authors to their fans and wider readerships.

Voyager: are gearing up for the release of George R R Martin’s long-awaited A Dance with Dragons – released 12 July. It’s been six years since A Feast for Crows, not that we should complain. According to initial reviews, it’s going to be well worth it. We should also celebrate Voyager’s new free app to ‘reward’ fans’ patience. There aren’t many apps for SFF titles, and that George (first names basis) has one is great, but also maybe demonstrates that to have time and budget dedicated to an SFF imprint author, that author needs to have proven himself (with a HBO series perhaps).

Orbit: are also gearing up for their biggest release, possibly of the whole year (warning: bias alert), Jim Butcher’s Ghost Story on 28 July. And in the process, Mark Yon, reviewer and administrator at the excellent SFFWorld, has been diligently slogging through The Dresden Files’ backlist (someone has to do it) and providing weekly reviews. Despite being a nerd for Jim Butcher, I am one fan (such a small word) who will NOT be eagerly awaiting the release of Ghost Story, because I’ve already read it. A staff member at Little, Brown on my work experience may have been subjected to several hours of My Love for Jim Butcher, and, possibly hoping I’d read it and shut up, produced a freshly printed copy for my greedy mitts. In response, and much to her relief, I exploded with happiness. Just another 12 months ‘till the next one. It’s embargoed so no review, unfortunately, except to say (without spoilers), that it’s… necessarily a departure from what readers are used to. I also recommend a re-read of Changes, to understand just how necessary a divergence Ghost Story is. Harry wasn’t just on the edge in that last book, he was free-falling from it.

Gollancz: are still celebrating their 50th anniversary. This time they’re publishing the third edition of the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction online, free of charge. The first two editions won the Hugo Award – I wonder if it’s possible for an online resource to do the same? I’m also curious to know how much this makes sense commercially. But it is great publicity for Gollancz, so maybe they will reap the benefits elsewhere. Or, you know, maybe they’re just nice. You can eagerly await the launch by watching this space, following them on Twitter or visiting their Facebook page.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

digital marketing - science fiction and fantasy

Over the last few weeks this blog has been focusing on what the four imprints I’m using as case studies for my dissertation do to digitally market their books. As promised, this is the exciting* summary of my findings, looking at which imprint out of the four – Tor, Orbit, Voyager and Gollancz – most effectively uses digital marketing to promote its authors and titles. Here are the results.

TOR

With no blog, a Facebook page I can’t find (although I’ve heard rumour of there being one) and an area on the Pan Macmillan website that is more shop than shoptalk, Twitter is Tor’s hub for digital marketing. Events will get mentioned, review links posted, pictures of tours and author ventures plugged. Editorial Director of Tor Julie Crisp is always present on Twitter, tweeting Tor’s latest campaigns, communicating with readers and providing relevant links, whilst not being overly pushy about the books she’s publishing. She helps to trend topics like #towelday – 25 May is Towel Day in memory of the late, great Douglas Adams - really taking advantage of what Twitter (and fans) can do. Tor UK is on there too, tweeting about subjects relating to its list with personality and a good degree of vim. Tor is also using Twitter to advertise its competition in cahoots with SFX magazine for cover designing – a unique way of promoting a title. Some stats: Tor’s Twitter stream has 1424 followers, Julie Crisp, clearly doing something right, has 1520. I recently heard that Tor has been allotted the budget for a new blog, so it’s obviously deemed an important tool in digital marketing – it will be great to see what Tor does with it.

ORBIT

Orbit UK has a larger team than most other dedicated science fiction and fantasy imprints, with various folk in charge of digital, publicity and general marketing, and Orbit USA and Aus/NZ banding together as well to digitally market as a global imprint, which is worth bearing in mind. Although it has a strong Twitter and Facebook presence, the most remarkable part of Orbit’s digital marketing strategy is its website. Orbit’s website is its hub for marketing, and what a hub. It streamlines the UK/USA/Aus/NZ imprints into one, accessible source of information. As well as containing its publishing schedules and author profiles (with links to websites and details about its titles), Orbit’s website is basically a very well-maintained blog. It contains, among other things, guest posts from authors (not always from Orbit’s own list), editors, editorial assistants and the very excellent, always enthusiastic, Art Director Lauren Panepinto. The site also contains a blog roll and links to SFF sites, and allows for comments on each post, maintaining a healthy online community. It really is a smorgasbord of information. Some stats: Facebook – 2292 likes. Orbit Twitter – 8727 followers. Orbit Editorial Assistant James Long Twitter account – 801 followers.

VOYAGER

Bearing in mind Voyager’s small team, it doesn’t have a Facebook page and its page on HarperCollins’ website is a bit impersonal (in-keeping with the overall professional image), but it does have a Twitter and blog, maintained mainly by one dedicated Assistant Editor, and a few guest bloggers. There tends to be about one to two posts every fortnight, and they can consist of: reviews from HarperCollins’ staff members of Voyager’s books, an huge ongoing campaign for George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, countdown widgets for upcoming titles for blogs and websites, trailers, the occasional book of the month, cover launches, a heads-up for its new ventures, a post on its physical consumer marketing campaign for Peter V Brett and a few non-marketing related posts, which arguably is good digital marketing in itself. The blog/site also contains links to other sites and every post can be commented on. Its Twitter account contains links to its blog posts as well as plenty of perky communication with fellow tweeters and readers, particularly considering there is only one person behind the tweets. What I like about this (warning: personal preference) is that HarperCollins is a hugely commercial publisher but the Voyager feed feels personal. Some stats: Twitter – 2577 followers.

GOLLANCZ

Gollancz does not have a strong blog presence although its website is good, and the team know how much time it can exhort updating it (hence its book and author of the month). Therefore Gollancz’s strengths lie in its Facebook and Twitter presence. Its main technique is to run competitions for readers to win its titles (admittedly, it hammered this more a few months back). It would be really interesting to find out how these competitions affect sales, if at all, as I think it’s a unique way of marketing, and great for smaller budgets (although the postage and packaging costs must be immense). Gollancz also: knows the beauty of a good hash tag, posts YouTube links to author interviews and trailers, flags up signings, reviews, posts pictures, links to other relevant information it feels its readers will find interesting (rather than making the rookie error of only talking about itself), news about its award nominations, and a whole host of other links and comments. Some stats: 1865 people ‘like’ its Facebook page, on average Gollancz posts 2-3 times per day, and it has one sister Facebook page, Gollancz Dark Fantasy, which has 3608 ‘likes’ (thank you, Charlaine Harris). Gollancz Twitter has 3144 followers, and Gollancz Dark Fantasy Twitter has 977. This might only be something I find fascinating, but this shows Dark Fantasy fans are more likely to follow its Facebook page than its Twitter stream, and vice versa for Gollancz main.

Conclusion of summary: Every imprint has its own way and knows how to digitally market its books into a reader’s heart. Unfortunately, man power, time and money are huge factors regarding what avenues you can take. Hence why Twitter and Facebook, being free, are great tools.

Active, healthy blogs look to be the way forward. Orbit’s just zings off the screen. Voyager’s is good, and would benefit from more time and posts (not always an option when one person is doing the posting), Tor’s is on its way. Gollancz could benefit from updating its blog more – but time factors probably get in the way so it picks and chooses when it utilizes this tool (eg, for its 50th anniversary).

Voyager and Tor (I may be wrong) both don’t have Facebook pages. Gollancz demonstrates why it’s important to reach fans both through Twitter and Facebook, through its discrepancies between Facebook ‘likes’ and Twitter followers.

With Twitter it is worth the editors and other staff having personal accounts that tweet about the industry. Julie Crisp has more followers than Tor UK but it’s probably a surety that she achieves the same promotional benefits for Tor’s titles as Tor’s actual Twitter stream, only people can feel more connected to an actual person, rather than an imprint.

Both Voyager and Orbit have a brand of their own away from their publishing groups – this could be important as it builds and taps into that essential fan community. They both also have less ‘personal’ pages on their publishing groups’ sites, so this caters for a wider readership.

Conclusion of conclusion of summary: Orbit’s model of digital marketing is fantastic. They demonstrate the ideal Twitter/Facebook/blog/website combination – all regularly updated and mostly interactive. But time and budget are huge factors that not every imprint can indulge in, which is where the personal touch, and a bit of ingenuity, comes in.

*Excitement not guaranteed

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

film review: X-Men: First Class (12A)

Having eradicated any mystery surrounding its greatest asset, the Adamantium-reinforced hairstyle Wolverine, the X-Men franchise has now turned its attention to mining the relationship between the heads of the mutant fractions, Magneto and Professor Xavier. Essentially, Marvel prequel X-Men: First Class is a 1960s-set mutant bromance.

In 1944, in German-occupied Poland, young Erik Lehnsherr bends a metal gate with his mutant abilities when his mother is taken from him by Nazis. His magnetism catches the eye of scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who brutally awakens the soon-to-be Magneto’s abilities, creating a forceful archenemy.

Skip to 1962 and twenty-something mutant Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), complete with full head of hair, is celebrating graduating by wooing girls with his mindreading abilities and knowledge of mutant lore. It’s almost as if he knows his cool days are numbered. Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds), meanwhile, is location hopping, suaving people to death in a Bond-like trail of revenge as he seeks out his ‘maker’, Shaw.

When CIA agent Moira (Rose Byrne, Get Him to the Greek) stumbles upon Shaw’s Hellfire Club, an elite band of mutants bent on heating up the Cold War, she enlists Xavier to help her convince the government that mutants exist. Xavier swiftly puts his college days behind him to join her with foster sister Raven in tow, the occasionally blue shape shifter ‘Mystique’ (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone).

With the use of Cerebro, a machine that focuses his telepathic abilities, Xavier begins to recruit his own band of mutants, starting with Lehnsherr, AKA Magneto, his soon-to-be arch-nemesis. But can any amount of split screen training montages help Professor X’s fledgling school of mutants stop Shaw from enabling humans to obliterate each other, when half of them think they deserve it?

At the heart of X-Men: First Class lies the doomed relationship between Xavier and Magneto. Magneto’s power was born of pain, Xavier’s of privilege. Yet despite their differing beliefs, the film paints a believable picture of blossoming friendship based on mutual respect. It’s hard to hide a soft centre from someone who can read your innermost thoughts, yet the pair’s scenes together brim with humour, and are touching without being schmaltzy.

Writers Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz worked on Marvel Comic’s Thor together, so they’re no strangers to superhero adaptations. While the same self-aware wit is present, First Class doesn’t lose marks with the same pitfall reliance on squeaky-clean CGI sets or glut of hammy characters. Perhaps because Kick Ass script scribe Jane Goldman is on hand to tighten the package with her quick fire dialogue and unabashed violence.

Kick Ass director Matthew Vaughn has managed to build on the world first deftly brought to screen by Brian Singer, who is back on board as producer. Despite featuring teenagers prone to mutating into hairy blue beasts, he’s somehow kept the Marvel universe down-to-earth and believable. It’s the angst he’s interested in, and not just the damage it results in.

A respectable crop of acting talent also helps. Brit Nicholas Hoult (A Single Man, Skins) pulls off an excellent yank accent as the troubled scientist with opposable toes, Hank McCoy. As if being a teenager isn’t hard enough. January Jones (Mad Men) utilises the ‘60s setting to valiantly pour herself into the increasingly tight white outfits worn by villainess Emma Frost, a diamond-encrusted telepath.

Some characters are underused and underdeveloped. Byrne’s beautiful CIA agent is relegated to simply being a useful plot device and the film barely chips the surface of Frost’s glittering exterior. These are minor complaints, however, as Vaughn’s focus is firmly on a select number of mutants whose abilities he can exploit to the max with his frequent, well-executed and breathtaking action scenes.

Those that do get the limelight, bask. Fassbender excels as the damaged Magneto. He blazes a trail from one end of the film to the other as Frankenstein’s monster wanting words with his creator. Yes this point is hammered home, but this doesn’t stop Fassbender allowing the audience a glimpse into Magneto’s pitted heart and teasing them with the possibility of the magnetic one’s redemption.

If Magneto’s foible is a tendency to try to destroy the human race, Professor X is too eager to please them. McAvoy’s Professor X isn’t the virtuous wheelchair-bound figure of his later years; his ‘can’t we all just get along’ philosophy has xenophobic origins. Under Vaughn’s direction, McAvoy never needs to spell it out – it’s written in his stoic, unyielding countenance. And the relationship he isn’t having with his jilted, blue best friend.

Bacon’s energy-absorbing mutant Shaw is spot on as the smug villain of the piece, although not even he can rock that helmet. Shaw might not get the finale he deserves, but that’s because Vaughn is always steering the focus back to bringing a satisfying end to his leading duo’s partnership.

Vaughn has successfully brought the X-Men franchise back to life. First Class is a blast – a well-paced action flick that’s grounded by the magnificent performances of its leads. X-Men: First Class – it’s all in the name.

8/10

Saturday, 18 June 2011

digital marketing - Gollancz

Over the last few weeks this blog has been focusing on what the four imprints I’m using as case studies for my dissertation do to digitally market their books. Like a bookish clash between Come Dine with Me and Whose Line is it Anyway?, each imprint has had a turn, the rules are made up and the points don’t matter. I have so far blogged about Tor UK, Orbit UK and HarperVoyager. This post is about Gollancz.

GOLLANCZ

Website: Gollancz has a section on the Orion Publishing Group’s website (which they’re owned by). When I first started this blog, this part of their website, and their blog, were not updated very often. In recent months however, particularly as it’s their 50th anniversary year, Gollancz have hit their stride with their webpage and blog. On their main page you can find their book of the month and author of the month (including links to their previous books so you can buy them, the author’s website and information about them), a bestseller list specifically for their titles with clickable links to further information and ways to purchase them, a list of their upcoming events and a nice link to a webpage for their most popular series, Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood books. They also have a ‘What’s hot’ section that contains recent news: this week, brilliantly, they’re in cahoots with National Blood Week – cross-promotional AND charity points, they’re also showcasing a trailer for their book of the month, Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper, a link to the Masterworks Reading Project, (old) news about Ian McDonald’s Dervish House being shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award (won by Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City) and a celebration of the last 25 years of the Arthur C Clarke Award (or should that be the first?). Gollancz does have a young adult page, although I’m just focusing on adult fiction here.

Blog: also on the Orion website, you will find the Gollancz blog. If you click through their archive, you’ll see there was a post in November, the next post wasn’t until April, and then you get to the May tab, and you’ll understand what I mean about a lack of activity until recently. Every day for a week in May they celebrated 50 years of Gollancz with a new blog post (I’m sure they did more than write a blog post, 50 years is a long time). They had a readers’ vote for their favourite titles, which is now closed, but this flurry of activity shows what can be done. However, I imagine it took a lot of time and resources, and it’s possible they’re another small team (the entire team seems to have written a post for this seven day session) that can’t afford to do this all the time. So, 50th anniversary points (admittedly, very particular to Gollancz). And it’s a shame that more can’t be done with the blog, because it is a great way to connect with readers, if they allowed for comments, and Joe Abercrombie’s post on George RR Martin shows its potential for entertainment. But that’s where, for Gollancz, Facebook comes in.

Facebook: this is where the digital marketing really happens for Gollancz. Their main technique is to run competitions for readers to win their titles (admittedly, this was more prevalent a few months back). Many competitions. They have all the competition points. It would be really interesting to find out how these competitions affect sales, if at all. I really hope they help sales, I think it’s a unique way of marketing, and great for smaller budgets (although the postage and packaging costs must be immense). You can really see the dedication of the marketing team (person?) here. They also post YouTube links to author interviews and trailers, flag up signings, reviews, post pictures, links to other relevant information they feel their readers will find interesting (points for not just talking about themselves), news about their award nominations, and just a whole host of other links and comments. Some stats: 1859 people ‘like’ their page, on average they post 2-3 times per day, and they have 1 sister Facebook page, Gollancz Dark Fantasy, which has 3526 ‘likes’ (and does much of the same, only with more of a focus on Charlaine Harris).

Twitter: here, as well as the beauty of hash tags, there is more of the same frequency of posts and topics as on the Facebook page. They have a Gollancz, Gollancz Dark Fantasy and a temporary account for their 50th anniversary. They also have mystery book quotes for followers to guess, tweets about events they’re currently attending (like the David Gemmell Awards – topical), and are just generally entertaining. They definitely know their way around a hash tag. Hash tag points.

Digital advances: Orion has a ‘Reading room’ area of their website, which is an ace way of promoting your titles, taking a cosy concept but making it digital. Here you can access sample PDFs of some of Gollancz’s titles, like Charlaine Harris’ Dead Reckoning. Cosy concept points.

Recently their author Charlaine Harris became the latest writer to exceed the 1m Kindle eBooks mark. So they’re doing well here, particularly with this author (the TV series possibly helps).

Gollancz have a digital publisher, Darren Nash, who promised the following back in August 2010 for Gollancz’s digital future: ‘enhanced e-books and apps, backlist projects, building virtual communities and developing online interaction through social media such as Twitter and blogs.’ I would definitely say that social media (barring the blog, perhaps) has taken off and looks to be going very strong. However, apps and enhanced eBooks haven’t yet shown their faces. In a blog post, their author Joe Abercrombie did mention a meeting with his editor that resulted in an absolutely amazing sounding eBook package, but I can’t find any further mention of it. I’m not sure about issuing ‘just around the corner’ points, but, what the heck, I’ll do it anyway.

Oh, and Amazon.co.uk shows that they have 391 eBooks published by Gollancz. That’s a good number.

Extras: the Orion Publishing Group has a general YouTube channel where you can find Gollancz trailers and author interviews. I can’t find many uploads by Gollancz, however, but it’s good that they’re utilising Orion’s page.

Conclusion: contain yourself - an exciting summary will follow shortly. Disclaimer: none of the imprints will win £1000 presented to them on a silver platter. They will not get to read out the end credits in the style of someone trying to propose just as their loved one discovers a beetle doing backstroke in their soup.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

digital marketing - HarperVoyager

Over the next few weeks this blog is going to focus on what the four imprints I’m using as case studies for my dissertation do to digitally market their books. Like a bookish clash between Come Dine with Me and Whose Line is it Anyway?, each imprint gets a turn, the rules are made up and the points don’t matter. This post is about HarperVoyager UK.

VOYAGER

One thing that I have not taken into account so far with blogging about Tor UK and Orbit UK’s digital marketing is business models. The term ‘business model’ tends to make my brain prepare to be imminently baffled, but what I mean by it here is pretty basic – the number of staff within the imprint and their roles. In Voyager’s case, having done work experience there, I know that there is a grand total of two staff members dedicated purely to this Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint, one of which handles the majority of the digital marketing. Solo points to her before we even begin.

Website: like Orbit, Voyager’s website is really a blog. While Orbit’s site is maintained in by a triumvirate of worldwide imprints (note: not as evil as it sounds), Voyager’s is hosted by HarperCollins and maintained mainly by one dedicated Assistant Editor, and a few guest bloggers. There tends to be about one to two posts every fortnight, and they can consist of: reviews from HarperCollins’ staff members of Voyager’s books, an huge ongoing campaign for George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (HBO’s TV adaptation - Game of Thrones, new covers, eBooks and the date for the upcoming, long-awaited A Dance With Dragons), countdown widgets for upcoming titles for blogs and websites, trailers, occasional book of the month (book of the every other month?), cover launches and a heads-up for their new venture into YA fiction, a post on their physical consumer marketing campaign for Peter V Brett and a few non-marketing related posts, which arguably is good digital marketing in itself. The blog/site also contains links to other sites and every post can be commented on – so community points to them.

As a side note, Voyager’s sister Australian imprint has a great site – complete with blog, online community, search engine, news and events listings and the tantalisingly titled ‘fun and games’. Who can resist such a tab?

HarperCollins hosts a page for Voyager on their main site. This contains links to the Voyager blog, as well as the Voyager Twitter feed, information about authors and their titles and upcoming books, and press releases. It’s not as updated as their blog, and while it is useful, it feels a bit more perfunctory, and not as welcoming as Voyager main. I will allot practical points for this.

Twitter: their Twitter page contains links to their blog posts as well as plenty of perky communication with fellow tweeters and readers, particularly considering there is only one person behind the tweets. What I like about this (warning: personal preference) is that HarperCollins is a hugely commercial publisher but the Voyager feed feels personal. Points for letting people know when they’re going on holiday, or that they left their pen back at the office when they wanted to mark proofs on the bus.

Facebook: I can’t find a Facebook page for Voyager UK. If there is one and I’ve missed it, I’m sorry (although no points for hiding well).

Digital advances: thanks to HarperCollins’ dedication to all things digital, Voyager has a healthy backlist of digital titles available, although the books don’t have any additional interactive features. They get extra goodwill points however for taking advantage of the digital format for the benefit of their customers. George RR Martin’s beasts tend to be unbindable and a few have been released in two parts – but their digital editions have been combined. Voyager even went a step further and bound the whole 3000 page series so far together in one digital volume for a relatively cheap price.

Blog: see ‘Website’.

Extras: Voyager has a monthly newsletter and a YouTube channel, but it hasn’t been updated for a while. Points to them, but not as many as for a well-maintained channel (admittedly these values mean very little).

Conclusion: contain yourself - an exciting summary will follow after all four imprints have had their turn. Disclaimer: they will not win £1000 presented to them on a silver platter. They will not get to read out the end credits in the style of someone delivering urgent information to someone on a bouncy castle.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

digital marketing - Orbit

Over the next few weeks this blog is going to focus on what the four imprints I’m using as case studies for my dissertation do to digitally market their books. Like a bookish clash between Come Dine with Me and Whose Line is it Anyway?, each imprint gets a turn, the rules are made up and the points don’t matter. This post is about Orbit UK (and USA/Australia too).


ORBIT


Website: Orbit’s website is its hub for marketing, and what a hub. It streamlines the UK/USA/Australia imprints into one, accessible source of information. As well as containing its publishing schedules and author profiles (with links to websites and details about its titles), Orbit’s website is basically a very well-maintained blog. The site also contains a blog roll and links to SFF sites, and allows for comments on each post, maintaining a healthy online community. In a digital session for my MA Publishing, Orbit’s site was used as a prime example of what good digital marketing is. Assuming that our tutor must be an SFF fan, I approached him after class preparing for a full-on geek-out, only to be met with a firm, ‘Oh no, I’m not a fantasy fan. I just really like Orbit’s website.’ So it’s that good. Whether it means to or not, it’s catering to people outside of the usual ‘fan’ spectrum on its content alone. It contains, among other things, guest posts from authors (not always from Orbit’s own list), editors, editorial assistants and the very excellent, always enthusiastic, Art Director Lauren Panepinto. Just this week, for example, there have been the following posts: fantasy author Helen Lowe waxing lyrical about why she loves martial arts; Lauren Panepinto launching the covers for Michael J. Sullivan’s The Riyria Revelations series (‘Bam! Can you say ‘EPIC’, people?’ – that’s what I mean by enthusiastic); Senior Editor Devi Pillai (USA) announcing the release of Brent Weeks’ straight-to-eBook-and-audio Perfect Shadow from Orbit’s short fiction venture; Mark Yon from SFFWorld continuing his guide to Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files in the run up to the release of Ghost Story; Lauren Panepinto again, this time offering Simon Morden’s ‘magic eye’ book covers as wallpaper (which also forms part of Simon Morden’s digital marketing campaign); and finally Simon Morden himself explaining why London is the perfect setting for his post-apocalyptic trilogy. And that’s all just in one week. It really is a smorgasbord of information. There aren’t enough points for this, so I’m just going to say ‘many’.


Twitter: Orbit UK/USA/Australia have a joint Twitter account, which fits with their ‘international imprint’ shtick. Most of the staff who frequent the blog are on there, like UK editorial assistant James Long (716 followers) and commissioning editor Bella Pagan (528 followers). Here’s where the US/UK/Aus staff members communicate and re-tweet each other – forming a joint community by spreading stories from the blog, good reviews of Orbit’s author’s titles and Orbit’s latest marketing campaigns. ‘Community’ points and some general cool points thrown in for the publishing staff building up more followers than some authors.



Facebook: Orbit has a Facebook page, again it’s a joint one between the three worldwide imprints. 2,221 people like it. Here it puts up its website/blog posts up on the wall. As well as good reviews from bloggers for its titles, and blogged interviews with its authors. More ‘community’ points to Orbit, although there isn’t much interaction between the staff and readers on the wall. Orbit also has a Facebook page exclusively for its eBook short fiction (1,119 likes). Digital points.


Digital advances: Orbit short fiction – as already mentioned, Brent Weeks’ Perfect Shadow is eBook and audio-only. In the same manner, Orbit will also be publishing, amongst others, Jennifer Rardin, who sadly passed away last Autumn, and some of her short stories. There’s also a newsletter you can sign up to. This is a really great venture, but I wish it had chosen something other than a robot as its logo, purely because Angry Robot Books pretty much has robots covered, and Orbit’s store would stand out so much more from the competition if it had a logo that was more humanoid. There is more than one kind of dance.

Blog: see ‘Website’.

Extras: Orbit has its own YouTube channel where its videos include ‘making-ofs’ (like for Simon Morden’s optical illusion masterpieces), as well as book trailers and interviews. I’ve posted this before, but bloody hell the book trailer for Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels is good. Let’s enjoy it again together. Points galore. Orbit also has its own flickr account with book signing photos – although they’re three years out of date. There will be no points for this.

Conclusion: contain yourself - an exciting summary will follow after all four imprints have had their turn. Disclaimer: they will not win £1000 presented to them on a silver platter. They will not get to read out the end credits in the style of a news reader who is desperate for the loo.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

digital marketing - Tor

Over the next few weeks this blog is going to focus on what the four imprints I’m using as case studies for my dissertation do to digitally market their books. Like a bookish clash between Come Dine with Me and Whose Line is it Anyway?, each imprint gets a turn, the rules are made up and the points don’t matter. This post is about Tor UK.

TOR

Website: the imprint has a section on the Pan Macmillan website, but it works as a shop rather than a marketing tool (although it does contain a list of author events). This is unique for a publisher – to sell direct to customers and cut out the middle Amazon-man, so points to Tor for that. If you select a particular book by an author you can then go to a page specifically about the author, and subscribe to certain RSS feeds. More points.

Twitter: this site is Tor’s hub for marketing. Events will get mentioned, review links posted, pictures of tours, author ventures plugged (like China Miéville’s short story 'Covehithe' in the Guardian not long ago). Editorial Director of Tor Julie Crisp is always present on Twitter, tweeting their latest campaigns, communicating with readers and providing relevant links, whilst not being overly pushy about the books she’s publishing, so kudos points for that last part. Tor trends topics like #towelday – 25 May is Towel Day in memory of the great Douglas Adams - really taking advantage of what Twitter can do. Tor UK is on there too, obviously tweeting about subjects relating to their list, but with personality and, dare I say it, vim. They’re also using Twitter to advertise their competition in cahoots with SFX magazine for cover designing. More points to them.

Facebook: I can’t find their Facebook page, so I’ve assumed there isn’t one, or it’s nigh impossible to locate. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Digital advances: Amazon’s Kindle store lists 81 of their titles, and it can be assumed that this list is going to grow. They’re all ‘vanilla’ at the moment, however, in 2009 an anniversary iPhone app for Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was created that had plenty of special features. A Bookseller article from February 2008 details how Tor gave away free copies of some of their titles in eBook form to advertise a ‘website’, but it provides no further detail other than saying that readers were, understandably, pretty well-pleased. There are no other articles in the Bookseller that talk about Tor’s digital initiatives, and none that I can find elsewhere. It was a great start – but did it end here?

YouTube: ADDITION - When I wrote this I hadn't found Tor's YouTube page, which is part of Pan Macmillan's page - you can see trailers, interviews, TV appearances from their authors, and more. Points to them, and a few more because I missed it the first time around.



Blog: N/A

Extras: Tor UK do have an e-newsletter that you can sign up to, which is great, but it’s not released nearly as often as I’d like to receive it. Genre for Japan: the imprint offered a year’s supply of their books for the cause. Charity points to them.

Conclusion: contain yourself - an exciting summary will follow after all four imprints have had their turn. Disclaimer: they will not win £1000 presented to them on a silver platter. They will not get to read out the end credits in the style of a sports commentator.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

China Miéville and his giant brain


For numerous reasons *@&&~~~# computer error code 124323### I was unable to write my weekly round-up this week, but don't worry, it should be back in force this time next ~~~@' unknown sandwich error***

China Miéville has been making waves recently at the Guardian - they've been lavishing him with some fabulous coverage. I’m going to case study him for my dissertation, because, according to the Guardian, he’s making Sci Fi cool again (plus his brain is so large his head has no room for hair). The only person to win the Arthur C. Clarke award three times, he’s just graduated to being the sort of writer who deserves to be featured in an A life in writing article. Basically the Guardian has trumped my dissertation topic by stating that Miéville has ‘combined his love of genre, geeky in its enthusiasm but scholarly in its depth, with an ambitious literary sensibility.’ He’s come a long way. In 2003 Miéville was credited by Granta’s editor as being ‘an extraordinary writer of dark fantasy’, but he still wasn’t included on their Best Young British Novelist list for that year. He might have been writing in an acceptably literary fashion, but he was still doing it by writing fantasy. Bad times. But that was eight years ago, and the snobbery (that’s ‘stigma’ according to my dissertation) isn’t as prevalent. Better times. He would hate my dissertation, because he’s waxed eloquent about this sort of ‘why are we so put-upon’ moaning, describing it as: ‘the endlessly arse-achingly expressed complaint from genre that no one takes us seriously.’ Yet, despite that, he recently wrote in his blog: ‘The sooner literary fiction recognises and accepts its generic identity, the sooner it can get help.’ Which is now a valid new section for my dissertation. I do believe that Miéville is the final push for genre. OK, so SFF isn’t as derided as I’d initially hoped thought it would be when I set out to write this beast, but it just needs a little bit more help to become as accepted as, say, crime (that’s the genre, not the act). Some people are always going to dislike it, but I think it would be great if this wasn’t just on principle. Now, if only I was writing my dissertation circa 2003…

Saturday, 14 May 2011

D&D Encounters – RPG for beginners and lessons in what not to call a room full of gamers

In the name of researching information for my dissertation on stigma and Fantasy publishing, I have contacted publishers, interviewed editors and sent questionnaires to readers of different genres. But last week I decided the time had come to look into a different corner of the Fantasy market, that of the Fantasy gamer.

The generalised stigma surrounding Fantasy, Science Fiction and, to an extent, Horror (if the stigma exists, and I think it does), by which I mean the negative perception of SFF books (eg, they’re for children, they’re escapism, they’re wish-fulfilment, they’re badly written), also includes the negative perception of the readers themselves. I think many people who scorn the genre (please step forward by the way, I need you) still have this image of the ‘geek’ in mind when thinking of SFF readers.

That is, the spotty teenager/middle-aged man still living with their mother, with a deep lack of social skills and an unhealthy pallor earned from late nights spent basking in the glow of their computer screen, barking orders at their elf-self that’s done more exercise going from one end of the tavern to another than they’ve done in a year.

I blame television. Obviously, this is blatant stereotyping; it’s negative and, let’s face it, plain mean. Why is it a bad thing to enjoy gaming, online or otherwise? Who cares if some of those people who enjoy gaming also enjoy wearing their hair as long as their beard and t-shirts that say ‘What Would Leeroy Do?’

There are different sectors of the gaming world. There is LARPing – Live Action Role Playing (people who run around the woods acting out Fantasy battles and what not). MMORPGs – Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (role-playing video games like World of Warcraft, EverQuest, etc). MMOG – Massively Multiplayer Online Games (online poker, puzzles etc). And there is RPG – Role-Playing Games (complex board games like Warhammer, Dungeons and Dragons, etc).

Of all of these, I felt that RPG was the one where I could find a bunch of like-minded people together in the same place (as opposed to distributed all over the world), and speak to them face-to-face.

However, when I emailed a shop that specialised in RPG, I didn’t expect the following response:

Me: *explains project and asks for help*

Store: Sure! But the best way is to take part in a session. We have D&D Encounters for beginners, we’ll set you up a character.

Me: ?!

Store: What would the slightly gothy version of yourself be like?

Me: ?!!!! *Out of my depth* A cross between Tyrion out of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and… Buffy? But that’s probably not what you meant.

Store: That’s exactly what I meant ; )

So that’s why I cobbled together my questionnaires and, with younger sister in tow for support (she wanted to be Xena – we were clueless), embarked on a three and a half hour gaming session, the majority of which I spent completely bewildered.

To cut a long session short, there was a lot of background information the others on the table knew that we didn’t (not to mention incomprehensible in-jokes that provoked rounds of laughter we politely joined in on). This is because there are whole books published on the universe, including a number of regular publications that reveal new characters, abilities and locations, and a considerable online community fostered by DCI where you can swap stories, build characters and buy their countless, expensive player products.

D&D Encounters is, not a dating for geeks as the name might suggest, a series of weekly ‘epic encounters’, and ours was called ‘Dark Legacy of Evard.’ You can find out more here – and more details are released weekly so that gamers everywhere can take part.

I was Luusi, the human slayer. Our Dungeon Master was called Ian. Dungeon Master Ian, an ex-academic with long grey hair, explained the rules as we went along with supreme calm and patience. Our fellow gamers were similarly patient and helped us make our moves, looking past our expressions of confusion. There were just so many numbers and variety of dice involved. I rolled a D20 and a D10 (for damage, obviously), but one man declared something incomprehensible before throwing five different kinds of dice onto the table and making his move. The rest of us were suitably astounded (or at least, I acted suitably astounded to hide my lack of understanding). When I was first up I rolled a crit, which drew gasps, but I felt only panic, and had to fight the urge to say ‘Maths. Very dangerous. You go first.’ However, I didn’t want to look weird in front of the gamers.

The gamers consisted mostly of middle-aged men or boys that still looked teenaged, with hair in lots of exciting lengths and arrangements – and for the most part were lovely. There was an element of seriousness involved, such as when DM Ian was voicing the parts of the characters in the inn, although when he ducked behind his cardboard barrier to eat his pasta salad, this diminished somewhat. But mostly it was a relaxed atmosphere. There were tables set out where different games were taking place, and people came in and left when they pleased, bringing sandwiches, pizzas, more pasta salads and cans of pop along with them. The atmosphere was relaxed, safe, and you could tell people felt at home.

But then the time came for my questionnaires to be handed out. Suffice to say that I learned a few lessons. Namely: to check my grammar and to never use the word ‘geek’ in a room full of gamers (particularly in a questionnaire full of errors). My questions were openly mocked. It was like being back in high school. Essentially, I’d entered their inner sanctum, disrupted their gaming session, and demanded they answer questions about what it’s like being called ‘geeks’ and ‘steriotypes’ (sic). I think I would have mocked me too.

Having done a session, I only have admiration for the sheer volume of information the players are aware of, and their mathematic ability. I mean, doesn’t a die only have six sides? Any more than that and I'm lost.

Fun fact: the feedback from my questionnaires indicated that gamers don't equal genre fans, and it's a misconception that they are automatically going to be as geeky as, say, me about SFF fiction.

For a keen gamer this place is amazing. For an enthusiastic beginner (sans questionnaires), they're going to get a great welcome. Although this was one lair I don’t think I’ll be invading again.