Pokémon Go and the Strange Horizons Fundraiser

My latest Metagames column is up at Strange Horizons! It's about Pokémon Go, and how that game was pretty well designed from the start to be extremely quittable.

And yet I maintain that the game is basically over already—Pokémon Go has already lost 79% of its paying players compared to its July 15 peak, and those numbers are going to keep going down. And down. And down. Winter is coming.

It's all in the design; Pokémon Go has no staying power. It's a game that practically begs you to quit.

Strange Horizons is a nonprofit entity, and they're doing their annual fundraiser right now. They're hoping to get at least $15,000 to run their magazine for a whole year. But $20,000 or even $25,000 would be better—not just for them, but for the overall health of the short story ecosystem, and for readers, too. The editors don't make money out of this; every cent goes to operations and paying writers. They've already raised $9,000... but there's a long way to go in just six days.

It's a good time to chip in, folks. Strange Horizons does great work, above and beyond just my column. They do original short fiction, reviews, and columns, poetry, special issues. They're actively trying to address the inequities revealed by the Fireside #BlackSpecFic Report. And if you're in the USA, your donation is tax-deductible.

Go on, chip into their Patreon. Just $4 a month is a complete subscription to each weekly issue. Or if you're cautious about a long-term commitment, you can make a one-time donation through Network for Good or through Paypal. All the deets are at their site.

This year has been bad enough. Let's try to keep all the good things going that we can, OK?

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Readercon 2016

This is big news, you guys. ENORMOUS. I'm going to be at Readercon this year, and—this is the big news part—I'll be doing my first-ever fiction reading. I can't decide what I should read from! An upcoming ReMade episode? The Luck Eaters? A short story to be named later? Ahhhhhhh so many options!

Anyway, here's my (possibly still preliminary) schedule. Please, please flag me down and say hello if you're at the con. It's going to be so great!

Thursday July 07

8:00 PM    5    Living in the Future. John Chu, Barbara Krasnoff (moderator), Andrea Phillips, Tom Purdom, Terence Taylor. Today, if we're going to see another person, we have cellphones to instantly communicate with that person, and maps on the cellphones to help us find our agreed-upon location. Twenty years ago we would have had to phone each other on landlines, pick a restaurant in advance or agree to meet at a landmark known to both of us. Five hundred years ago we wouldn't have had watches on our persons, so even keeping to the correct time of the appointment would have been difficult–how would we even know when the agreed-upon time of our meeting arrived? Our panelists will discuss some of the conveniences, large and small, that we take for granted, and the absence of which would cause difficulties of the sort that are often elided in fiction. The discussion will also discuss science fiction novels and stories that incorporate and project modern technology into their fictions, and which fail to take these things into account. 

Friday July 08

1:30 PM    A    Reading: Andrea Phillips. Andrea Phillips. Andrea Phillips reads new work. (!!!)

3:00 PM    C    Fantastical Dystopia. Victoria Janssen, Ada Palmer, Andrea Phillips, Sabrina Vourvoulias, T.X. Watson. Dystopia is popular in YA fiction for a variety of reasons, but why do authors frequently base their future dystopian society on some flimsy ideas, rather than using history to draw parallels between past atrocities and current human rights violations? Is it easier to work from one extreme idea, such as "love is now considered a disease" rather than looking at the complexities of, for example, the corruption of the U.S.S.R or the imperialism of the US? If science fiction uses the future to look at the present, is it more or less effective when using real examples from the past to look at our present through a lens of the future?

5:00 PM    BH    WTF is Transmedia?. Andrea Phillips. Quick answer: transmedia storytelling is the art of using multiple platforms to tell a unified story. Sometimes it looks like the MCU, and sometimes it's stories that infiltrate the real world. Transmedia veteran Andrea Phillips will talk about her years as a pioneer in the transmedia mines, and how it made her a better writer–and a worse one!

Saturday July 09

1:00 PM    5    If Thor Can Hang Out with Iron Man, Why Can't Harry Dresden Use a Computer? . Gillian Daniels, Elaine Isaak, Andrea Phillips, Alex Shvartsman, E.J. Stevens. In a series of tweets in 2015, Jared Axelrod pondered "the inherent weirdness of a superhero universe... where magic and science hold hands, where monsters stride over cities." This is only weird from the perspective of fantasy stories that set up magic and technology as incompatible, an opposition that parallels Western cultural splits between religion and science and between nature and industry. Harry Dresden's inability to touch a computer without damaging it is a direct descendant of the Ents destroying the "pits and forges" of Isengard, and a far cry from Thor, Iron Man, and the Scarlet Witch keeping company. What are the story benefits of setting up magic/nature/religion and technology/industry/science as either conflicting or complementary? What cultural anxieties are addressed by each choice? How are these elements handled in stories from various cultures and eras?

3:00 PM    C    What Good Is a Utopia? . Michael J. Deluca, Chris Gerwel, Barry Longyear, Kathryn Morrow (leader), Andrea Phillips. If an author sets out to write a utopia, several questions arise. Character and interpersonal conflict can drive the story, but how do you keep the utopian setting from becoming backdrop in that case? Were the Talking Heads right in saying that "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens"? And how do you showcase how much better things would be "if only"?

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How to Fake Clarion

So this happened this morning.

For many of us, Clarion isn't in the cards. Maybe you can't leave your job for six weeks without losing the job and your home. Maybe you're the parent of a small child, or take care of an elderly or disabled relative. Maybe you have a chronic health condition yourself, or an anxiety disorder that means you wouldn't be able to travel or participate. Maybe you're saving up for a house or paying off medical debt.

Maybe you'd rather go on a proper vacation if you happen to come into a few thousand dollars in disposable income.

None of these things mean you can't be a professional writer. But the good news is, there's more than one path to being a writer, pro or otherwise.

Clarion Isn't the Only Game in Town

First off, Clarion is a six-week endeavor. There are other writer's workshops that require only one week out of your life, and are also highly regarded. Viable Paradise, for example -- and I wish I could make the time for that one. Taos Toolbox is also reportedly an excellent workshop and worth your time and money, if you have them to spare.

Even better, these retreat-style workshops aren't the only way to improve your craft. There might be a genre writer's workshop in your own town that meets once a week, or once a month. And there are critique circles online ranging from Critters to Absolute Write -- I'm sure commenters will chime in with more. If you want a workshop-style venue to have your work read, and to critically read the work of other writers in turn, there are plenty of options.

And the truth is, workshops are helpful... but they're not necessary. Far from it.

Faking a Workshop

What a workshop does for you is hone your critical eye. Simply by being exposed to excellent critical thinking, you develop the capacity to critique your own work. But you can develop a critical eye on your own, if other means don't suit you.

Read. Read widely. But don't just take in the story. As you go, consciously reflect on what you're thinking and feeling. Are you expecting the story to go in a particular direction? What exact sentence or passage led you to that belief? What made you feel excited, or sad, or tense? How are the scenes structured? How are description, dialogue, and action blended together? How long are the sentences? A story is a machine, and every part should be doing a specific job. You need to become a mechanic, able to look at each piece of the story to identify what work is being done.

Read reviews. But not of your own work -- of the stuff you're already analyzing. When you've finished a book or a story, go looking for the reactions of other people to calibrate your own antennae. In preference, read longer, analytic reviews that talk about both what a work has done and how it fits into the overall landscape of genre publishing. Deep critical analysis like you'll find on NPR Books or are perfect, but you'll even find insightful critique on Goodreads and Amazon. 

Read bad work. This is, I strongly believe, an important part of a writer's development. Read stuff you know is going to be bad. And then -- this is the important part -- analyze the hell out of it. Why is it bad? Does it fail on a sentence level, on consistency, does it fail in terms of pacing or plausibility? Sometimes we learn from mistakes better than we learn from success. You can't watch Meryl Streep and learn how to be an amazing performer, but you can watch a fifth grade play and learn that maybe you shouldn't leave your hands hanging by your sides the whole show, and maybe you should speak up a little more.

Revise. This is where you apply what you've learned. The temptation to write and immediately submit is strong, but while you're trying to actively develop your craft, resist the urge. Come back to a story after a few days, weeks, months if you can spare them, and try to read as if you'd never seen the story before. Think about everything you're learning, and apply those lessons to your own work. 

Repeat. Clarion (and other workshops) are an intensive course in this kind of thinking, but even when Clarion is over, you'll need to keep doing these things forever. At least, you do if you want to keep growing as a writer. And why on earth would you ever want to stop getting better?

Clarion's Secret Sauce

Here's the real reason Clarion is a big deal: the alumni association, as it were, is a powerful and widespread network in genre publishing. Human nature being what it is, we like people who have the same experiences and affiliations as we do. And we like to help the people we like. So if you go to Clarion, some doors of opportunity are a little more open to you than they were before.

We like to tell ourselves that publishing is a meritocracy, and that's only sort of true. People do emerge from the slush pile, naked and alone. You really don't have to know someone to be published.

But at the same time, it's a bit easier to break in if you've become a familiar face -- not just because people are more willing to go to bat for a friend, but because you'll begin to understand the kinds of work different editors and markets are interested in, you'll learn from the successes and mistakes of your peers, you'll become a part of the cultural conversation that SF/F fundamentally is.

So how do you fake the network? Duh, networking! Build your own. Go to cons, if you can. Make friends. Invite people to coffee or a drink. If that's not possible for you, work social media. Follow authors, editors, agents on Twitter. 

And don't be all networky and utilitarian about it, because people can tell and generally super hate that. You need to approach everything as an exercise in meeting interesting people and making friends. Promote the work you admire. Ask questions. Introduce people to each other when you can; do favors when you can. Give to the community. Give. Give. You can worry about taking later, or maybe never. 

Because Clarion is, at the end of the day, just one neighborhood in the SF/F community. But there are others, and you'll find professional writers in all of them.

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Van Halen, M&Ms, and Accessibility Policies

Van Halen famously had a rider on their touring contract that stipulated there must be a bowl of M&Ms backstage -- with all the brown ones picked out. But despite appearances, this wasn't ego run amuck. That contract rider also had complex technical specifications for electrical systems, clearance, even how much weight the girders must be able to support.

Once Van Halen arrived to set up a show, any brown M&M was a quick red flag that the venue hadn't read the contract carefully, and so probably wasn't complying with those detailed technical requirements, either. And while a brown M&M might not be poison, those technical requirements were literal showstoppers. Electrical fires are not rock 'n roll.

This brings me to accessibility policies, and more specifically to Mary Robinette Kowal's pledge not to go to a convention that lacks such a policy. Seriously, stay with me.

Some years ago, John Scalzi made a similar pledge regarding harassment policies. At the time, I worried that participating would be damaging to my career -- when you're a tiny fish in a wide blue ocean, you have to take all the publicity you can get your grubby mitts on.

I've been to a lot more conventions since then, and here's what I've learned: the sort of convention that can't be bothered with a harassment policy is likely going to have serious organizational problems, weird politics, dull programming, or some combination thereof. It's true I'm very early in my career as an author, and I can't afford to miss out on promotional opportunities. 

But the flip side of that is that as an early-career author, I pay my own way to conventions. I have only so much time and money to give, and there are so many, many conventions. So I need to budget carefully to make sure I get the most bang for my promotional buck. I really can't afford to go to a lousy convention.

Which means harassment and accessibility policies are increasingly important to me -- not just because they're morally right, not just because of my leftist SJW politics. Even if you're not worried about harassment yourself, even if you're not worried about accessibility yourself, if those policies are missing, that should be your brown M&M. The sign that what you're dealing with is very likely to be a shitty convention. 

Sign the pledge.

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Reading Habits Survey 2015

I have some, shall we say, strong reading preferences at this point -- in particular, I tend to prefer shorter books, and books that aren't a part of a series. But I am only a single data point, and in conversation with the clever and thoughtful Sunil Patel, I got to wondering how representative of current reading tastes I am.

So I thought I'd ask.

The survey asked only seven questions, and I put the call out on social media, so I can't guarantee that the self-selected set of respondents here, who are all connected to my own social network at some degree of remove or another, are representative of all readers. Summarized here are the data I collected. (Pardon the inconsistent chart formats -- some are SurveyMonkey screen shots, and some I built separately in Excel.)

First off, unsurprisingly, basically everyone who participated in the survey considers themselves to be a book reader. Out of 505 responses, only 15 people answered "no" or "not sure."

So just about everyone self-defines as a reader, but what does that mean in practical terms? How many books are we talking? Or more specifically: how many books did you read last year?

How many books did you read in the last 12 months? The X axis is books read last in the last year; Y is how many respondents answered for each range.

How many books did you read in the last 12 months? The X axis is books read last in the last year; Y is how many respondents answered for each range.

...Wow. People who read, it turns out, read a loooooot of books. Roughly a third of our readers went through between one and twenty books last year, and another 40% read between 30 and 100. And a shocking-to-me number of people reported reading 100, 200, even 300 books in a year. The maximum number reported -- and not a unique one -- was 500. Respect. Where do you find that much time?!

Next, I thought I'd ask about ebooks. What percentage of the books you read last year were ebooks? So this was interesting -- unsurprisingly, a large number of readers won't touch ebooks. A much smaller number read ebooks exclusively. Zero-ebooks brought 97 respondents, and only 50 said 100 percent.

What % of books you read in the last 12 months were ebooks? (in # of respondents)

What % of books you read in the last 12 months were ebooks? (in # of respondents)

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 3.49.10 PM.jpg

It bears noting, though, that a lot of books simply aren't available in ebook format, and sometimes pricing is prohibitive on one format or another, so a cost-conscious consumer may flip back and forth. And yet! Very, very few people are comparatively willing to read either format equally. Notice that dip in the middle. The majority of readers responding want their books the way they like them. So much for the death of print, huh?

Next up was an analysis of what genre our readers prefer. I'd expected a majority of science fiction and fantasy readers, since I put the call for survey responses out on Twitter and I run in a lot of circles that skew toward those genres. But in fact our reading tastes are deliciously promiscuous.

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 12.55.18 PM.jpg

In retrospect I might have found better results for the later questions about series by limiting the responses to genre fiction, but frankly I was curious how much nonfic and literary fiction crossover reading occurs. It looks like... quite a lot.

And that "other" category proves some substantial oversight on my end, or at least grounds for debate about what makes a genre. Of the 112 respondents answering "other," 40 wrote in some version of Young Adult. Other genres often mentioned include religious, erotica, and historical, and quite a few respondents used that space to specify very specific subcategories of readership ranging from steampunk to sewing. A very few respondents chose to mention non-genre-specific reading preferences, too, like seeking out black novel protagonists, YA books including trans characters, or Canadian authors.

And now we get on toward the initial questions I had when I started this endeavor -- of all of those many, many books being read, what percentage of them are in series?

What % of books you read in the last 12 months were part of a series? (in # of respondents)

What % of books you read in the last 12 months were part of a series? (in # of respondents)

It's hard to come away with a solid conclusion out of this one. Roughly 10% of our readers didn't read any series at all, and about 60% say that series books make up half or less of their reading material. I'd interpret this to meant a slight preference against series works -- but given that many of our respondents read lit-fic, nonfiction, and other genres in which series are not a widespread practice, it's difficult to determine what this means in actionable terms.

So why don't we ask about that directly: how do various factors affect your decision to begin reading a book or not? Note that we're specifically not asking about marketing nor economic concerns -- I didn't want to muddy the waters, but in the long run it's likely that considerations like price and word-of-mouth trump other considerations entirely.

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 12.56.24 PM.jpg

We see few surprises here. Around 88% of readers are more likely or much more likely to read a book if it's part of a series they've read already, and very, very few people say otherwise. This is especially interesting considering that series attrition is a known phenomenon -- people definitely do stop reading series in the middle, and many a series has never reached completion as a result. This may well be a case where what we think we would do is at odds with what we actually do.

Moving on, there's a slight preference toward a book that is the first in a series, but it's only around 5%. There's a much stronger preference toward the first book in a completed series; about half of readers are more likely or much more likely to read the first book in a series after the last book has been written. So people... like series, basically. I guess that shouldn't be a surprise; they wouldn't be published if nobody was buying. 

In retrospect, I should have asked separately how people feel about standalone books in particular. I originally thought that more/less likely to read a book in a series would make that answer visible in the negative space, but I don't think the data is clear enough to allow any such conclusions to be drawn.

And then there's the length question. I may be unusual in preferring standalone books, and roughly two-thirds of readers don't care one way or another how long a book is. But of that third that care, it looks like there is indeed a bias away from longer works. about a quarter of readers say they're less likely or much less likely to read a book over 500 pages, where only about 12% say they're more or much more likely.

There is a slight bias toward shorter books, on the other hand. Around 15% of respondents say they're less likely to read a book under 300 pages, but around 20% say they're more likely. That's not enough to commit to writing shorter books alone, but it certainly does mean there's space in the market for quicker reads.

The self-pub question was an afterthought. It looks like some stigma remains, and over half our readers are less likely or much less likely to read a book that's been self-published. On the flip side, only 12 readers out of 507 said they'd be in any way more likely to read a self-published book. But the bright side here for our direct-to-reader authors is that 43% of readers simply don't care how you were published one way or the other.

A more mathematically savvy analyst than I might be able to look at those responses and determine if there is a relationship between readers who are willing to give self-pub a shot and those who prefer ebooks. If you'd like to look at the data and run that analysis (or any other), shoot me a line and I'll give you the raw data -- minus the email information for people who wanted to be contacted when this post goes up, of course.

And finally a gimme: are people more likely to buy a book if they know the author on social media? Heck yeah, they are -- 4% of people said they were less likely, but a whopping 70% said they were more and much more likely. So it looks like all that time spent nattering around on the Facebooks and Twitters really does get you in the door.

Annnnnd that's the 2015 Reading Habits Survey. Some surprises, some really not surprises, and a whole lot of "result inconclusive, ask again later." Which does, at least, answer my original question -- my preferences aren't common, but I'm not alone, either. Readers are a diverse bunch, and like a whole lot of different things. And I find that a comforting piece of information: there's plenty of room in publishing for all of us.

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