Is it still called ego-surfing? That term was coined in the 1990s as more and more people got online, and would put their names into a search engine to see what came up. It soon became clear this was hazardous for authors. A few months after The Thief’s Gamble came out in 1999, I found two very negative reviews. According to one, the book proved I was a patriarchy-enabling betrayer of the sisterhood. The other reckoned it showed I was a ball-breaking man-hater. I was all set to respond, to explain, when a friend working in IT told me to take a breath, step away from my keyboard and think this through. I remain eternally grateful to him for explaining my chances of success were minimal, compared to the significant possibilities of things going badly for all the online world to see. As a more experienced writer told me soon after, ‘Arguing with a critic is like starting an arse-kicking contest with a porcupine. Even if you win, the cost to yourself won’t be worth it.’ The decades since have seen memorable catastrophes when authors have challenged reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.
So no, checking reviews and comments is not what I’m talking about. But another online saying in the 1990s was three things make a post. So here are three solid reasons for writers to stay vigilant over what’s being said about them online these days.
Generative AI has seen an explosion in misinformation. This year’s hobby among writers has been asking ChatGPT and similar for their biography. The inaccuracies that result can be hilarious, as very-far-from-intelligent software scours the Net for anyone with the same name and produces a mishmash of results. After that initial laughter though, this isn’t so funny. How can someone without any prior knowledge of the subject untangle the truth from the nonsense? How can they fact-check when search-engine results are increasingly poisoned by this rubbish?
This gets much worse when some inaccurate statement could have negative professional consequences. Tobias Buckell recently discovered he was being cited as an author praising AI for helping him finish writing a novel, in a lengthy and entirely made-up quote. He was justifiably furious. The excuse that the article was AI-generated so no one is to blame is ridiculous. A human decided to put that lie online – unless no one checked what was being posted, which just makes this worse.
There’s also been an upsurge in online impersonation, especially of literary agents, editors and other people working in publishing. Hopeful writers are being contacted with wonderful offers, and some will be too naive to know this is not how the book trade works. Generative-AI makes these scams more plausible and more common. Writers are being impersonated by scammers creating supposedly new stories in much-loved and long-ago completed series. They find themselves listed as authors of books they have never heard of on Amazon and other sites. These ‘books’ are AI-generated garbage, but how is a reader to know that before buying one and finding out that it’s trash? If the reader doesn’t know what’s happened, the danger of reputational damage for that writer is very real.
Not all of this misinformation can be blamed on generative-AI. I have been checking in on a particular Wikipedia page for over a month now, since I noticed a major rewrite that stripped away an individual’s positive achievements and inserted highly critical and inaccurate material. By which I mean paragraphs that no newspaper’s lawyer would let go to print as some statements would be legally actionable. The person making these edits was doing so under a pseudonym, while Wikipedia culture does not accept the subject of a page making changes themselves. (I have written before about issues with Wikipedia.)
I discussed this with several friends who are active on Wikipedia, who were naturally concerned. They undertook to take a look, and assured me that Wikipedia does have systems to deal with such situations. I have observed these systems in action, and I am glad to say that the page now offers fair and balanced content. But resolving this has taken quite a while, and there have been periods when that seriously inaccurate content remained visible. Two things follow from this. Firstly, if you are the subject of a Wikipedia page, check it from time to time. You need to know if inaccurate material has appeared before you can find help to get the facts straight. Secondly, if you are using someone’s page as a source, and something doesn’t seem right, do click on the Talk tab to look for any current disputes between Wikipedia editors.
In conclusion? All these things strengthen the arguments for an author maintaining and updating their own website, to ensure there is at least one source of accurate and up-to-date information about them online, which they control.
It’s always worth taking a look at the novels long- and shortlisted for genre awards – even if you’re not a member of organisations like the BSFA, the BFS, or SFWA. Likewise, it doesn’t matter if you’re eligible or not to vote for awards linked to conventions such as the Hugos. These are books that have appealed to a solid number of well-read SF&F fans. The juries who pick the winners for accolades such as the Arthur C Clarke Award and the World Fantasy Awards are fans first and foremost, and assess all submissions diligently. Not every book is for every reader, but there’s every chance you’ll find something to your particular taste that you haven’t come across before.
Then there are the short stories, the novellas, the non-fiction and related works. The odds are good that these lists will offer you unfamiliar names whose writing you’ll want to check out, both of authors currently published and of authors being written about. There’ll be discussions about aspects of the genre which you may very well find of interest. When something on any of these lists comes from a small press you haven’t previously encountered, it’s definitely worth seeing what else they’re publishing. And don’t forget the art awards, which invariably illustrate the breadth and depth of skill enhancing SF&F stories these days.
Why am I mentioning this now? Because the BSFA long lists have just been announced, and yes, I have an interest to declare because The Green Man’s Quarry is among the nominations for best novel. Will it be shortlisted? Who knows? At the moment, knowing enough readers enjoyed Dan Mackmain’s latest to nominate the book gives me a nice, warm feeling on this chilly wintry day.
If you are eligible to vote, but haven’t read this latest in the series yet, this is great timing, as the ebook is currently a Kindle UK limited time deal for the bargain price of 99p – and so are a good few other BSFA longlisted titles. Amazon have a wide-ranging SF&Fantasy offer on at the moment. That’s well worth checking out whether or not you’re interested in voting for any awards at all.
As regular readers will know, I’ve written stories for various themed anthologies published by this splendid US small press over the past decade. Each year they produce collections of original (no reprint) short stories from a mix of established SF&F authors and new voices found through an open submissions call. Editorial standards are rigorous, and ZNB is a SFWA-qualifying market. Each year, these books offer high-quality reading, as well as the pleasure of encountering writers new to you.
This time around, with the Kickstarter running until 14th September 2023, the projects are as follows:
Animals have been our companions since the dawn of time, but in science fiction and fantasy, often that bond is taken one magical—or technological—step further. From the ubiquitous black cats in witchcraft to the treecats in David Weber’s Honor Harrington universe, Anne McCaffrey’s dragons of Pern to Mercedes Lackey’s horse-like Companions in her Valdemar universe, familiars have played a part in stories since paper met pen. In FAMILIARS, we ask writers to stretch their imagination and give us their most inventive furry, feathered, or scaly companions in tales of fantasy, science fiction, mystery, or horror.
Edited by Patricia Bray & Joshua Palmatier, FAMILIARS will contain approximately fourteen stories with an average length of 6,000 words each. Anchor authors include Jacey Bedford, Jim C. Hines, Gini Koch & Bebe Bayliss, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, Seanan McGuire, Kari Sperring, and Jean Marie Ward.
In the heart-pounding world of espionage, it’s the spy that gets the dirty work done. From a longshot gamble to reverse the tides of war to a secret operation escaping with stolen plans, the task is often left to the double agent. Whether it’s for King and country or a private backer, the lone operative gets in and gets out…if only it was that easy.
Edited by Troy Carrol Bucher and Gerald Brandt, this anthology will explore Science Fiction or Fantasy stories of back-against-the-wall, desperate purpose–Hail Marys launched when hope seems lost. The actions of the secret agent can change the tides for good or evil; it all depends on which side you are on.
LAST-DITCH will contain approximately 14 stories with an average length of 6000 words each. Anchor authors include: Jason M. Hough, Tanya Huff, Elaine Isaak, Blake Jessop, Lee Modesitt, Jr., Derryl Murphy, Steve Perry, and Edward Willett.
Then there’s the project I’m involved with – AMPYRIUM
Welcome to Ampyrium, a city of a thousand wonders! May the trading be always in your favor.
Powerful magicians called the Magnum have created a massive city contained within eight walls, each with its own portal to another world. Here, eight different magical lands collide. In these streets, all of the races from those worlds come to trade, to politic, to carouse, and to murder. Merchants and royalty, thieves and assassins; caravans and envoys, armies and entourages. Everyone…and everything…can be found in Ampyrium. Every dream can be made real. Every vice is available. Every wish can be fulfilled. All you have to do is stay clear of the Magnum…and their Eyes are everywhere.
Edited by Joshua Palmatier, AMPYRIUM will contain approximately seven stories all set within the shared world of Ampyria with an average length of 12,000 words each. Authors include: Patricia Bray, S.C. Butler, David B. Coe, Esther M. Friesner, Juliet E. McKenna, Jason Palmatier, and Joshua Palmatier.
I’m currently working with my fellow authors on creating the peoples, the places, the customs and practises which will underpin this city and frame the stories we will tell within it. Once that groundwork is done, the plans for future anthologies will include open calls for submissions.
ZNB Kickstarters generate the base funds needed to produce their anthologies — payment for the authors, payment for cover art, production costs etc. The reward levels for the anthologies are set to more closely resemble the cost of the final product when it goes on sale to the general public. In essence, backers of the project are preordering the anthologies, although there will be a special mass market Kickstarter edition produced for backers who help fund the project at the paperback level. This special edition will have a limited print run to cover the orders made by the backers and will not be printed again. After that, a trade paperback edition is issued for the general public with an unlimited print run.
Today’s big news is that I have been elected to the Society of Authors Management Committee for a three year term. I joined the Society in 1997, when I was offered my first publishing contract and benefited immediately from expert advice. I have found membership invaluable ever since in dealing with the vagaries of this business through decades of constant change.
Experience has shown me the importance of writers staying informed about changes in publishing and bookselling. It’s vital to keep up-to-date with new technologies which offer us new options when publishers’ and retailers’ decisions serve their own interests but adversely affect authors. The VATMOSS/VATMESS saga also showed me it is essential for authors to advocate for themselves at the very highest levels, and taught me effective ways to do that.
I look forward to working with everyone else on the committee and in the Society in the interests of writers of all genres in these intensely challenging times. If you voted for me, thank you! You may rest assured that I’m mindful of the trust that those SFFH authors who gave me their vote have placed in me. Something I’m particularly keen to explore is the Society’s relationship with the writers who work primarily with small and genre presses.
And overall, what’s good for writers should benefit readers as well. That’s certainly my aim. It’s going to be an interesting next few years
It’s here, and I will be in conversation with Adrian Tchaikovsky and Mihaela Perkovic at 5pm UK time, 6pm Croatian time today. That will be on Zoom, and you’ll be able to see how long my hair is now, after a year without a trim! Plus there are all sorts of other things happening over these two days on Zoom and Discord.
Click here for the Convention website where you will find the timetable as well as full programme details. As well as all sorts of interesting and entertaining things, this offers a great introduction to Croatian fans – hopefully encouraging you to visit European conventions in future, when we can get together again. Meantime, hurrah for technology and the fans who work so hard to put online events together.
A reminder of this particular event’s aims. We’re raising money for earthquake relief in Petrinja and the wider area severely hit in December 2020. The convention is free, so you are invited to donate however much is appropriate to your own situation. You’ll be helping people who have lost their homes in the middle of winter and a global pandemic.
I have something to put in my diary! Croatians are organising this online event to raise money for earthquake relief after a quake on 29th December hit the small town of Petrinja – around 50 km (31 miles) SE from the Croatian capital Zagreb. Numerous, severe aftershocks followed. Seven people died and a lot of people are now without homes in the middle of winter and a global pandemic. Many buildings (which were old, to begin with) are completely uninhabitable and will have to be torn down and rebuilt.
Do get involved! Croatia is a fabulous country with lovely people – and terrific fandom.
So far there is a Facebook event page here
I’ll post full website info and further details as soon as I have them.
Please boost the signal and share the word as far as as fast as you can.
Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that I’ll be part of the @ZNBLLC Kickstarter for three new anthologies this year. I’ve had stories in four of these collections so far, as well as two earlier projects from this team. Sometimes that’s been as an invited author, sometimes I’ve gone through submission because I had an idea that was too much fun not to write. That’s the thing about these projects – they’re always full of intriguing possibilities.
That makes for great collections of stories and excellent value for readers at the entry levels. For those of you looking for something extra, there are a whole range of bonus reward levels. I’m offering assorted books and a couple of Tuckerisations (your name for a character in my story). There will be more detail on each theme soon, but for now, readers aware of my alter ego’s mystery novels set in Ancient Greece will not be surprised to lean that I’ll be writing a story for the ‘Deities’ anthology – as long as the Kickstarter funds.
Alongside the designated authors anchoring each book, there is always an an open call for submissions offering first rate editorial advice as well as professional rates of pay for the stories that make the cut. ZNB are also very keen to offer debut publication opportunities. Any SFF writers starting out should definitely go and take a look.
The project goes live later today. Meantime, you can click on the ‘Notify me on launch’ button here.
Well, that was an interesting experience. Last Friday I was alerted to the fact that my Wikipedia page had been flagged for deletion. Well, I say my page but one of the few things I know about the whys and wherefores of Wikipedia is that the subject of a page is not allowed to actually edit it. Anyway, I clicked a few links and established that the argument for my deletion was that I was not notable, and had not created a notable body of work. There was apparently a dearth of evidence that I was in any way a notable person, and as such, I had no place on Wikipedia.
Somewhere between startled and baffled, I noted this on social media. Consequently, I have learned a whole lot more about the whys and wherefores of Wikipedia. First and foremost is their idiosyncratic definition of ‘notable.’ This means statements about a subject must be backed by citations, by which they means links to material elsewhere on the internet to prove that a person has not merely done stuff but other people have written about them doing it, to establish proof. Not all online material is acceptable however. Blogs are not. Amazon reviews are not. Goodreads pages are not. These things are all deemed too likely to be unreliable.
Given my work on issues around representation and diversity, one thing in particular immediately strikes me about such insistence. This desire for verification is wholly laudable. It is also indirectly and unintentionally discriminatory. The fact that this discrimination isn’t deliberate in no way excuses it.
When 60-70% of all review coverage, media mentions and other online material that provides these verifying citations goes to white western male authors, then women, writers of colour and LGBTQ+ authors are always going to find it harder to provide ‘evidence’ and their pages will be much easier to challenge, given our consequent far greater reliance on our own blogs to publicize our activities and other special interest blogs and websites that won’t appear in a cursory search, looking for example at Google News reports.
It seems Wikipedia is aware of its systemic bias, as detailed in this article. Read this, and related pieces, and I imagine many of you will note, with the weary contempt of familiarity, the repeated insistence that it’s up to women themselves, and other under-represented groups to do all the hard work here. Though I haven’t found anything addressing the issue I raise above, explaining what we’re expected to do when sufficient acceptable citations simply do not exist, and those references that do exist are not deemed acceptable. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
On the plus side, I have learned that there are dedicated groups of female and other special-interest Wikipedians spending considerable time and effort updating and expanding pages, intent on correcting this bias. Mind you, I also learned their work is frequently challenged and even undone by other Wikipedians applying the all too prevalent and far too often white western male logic of ‘not of interest to me personally = not of interest to anyone’. And of course, such challenges can very easily be a thinly veiled cover for actively discriminatory behaviour. Having read the Wikipedia page on handling tendentious editing, I am not in the least reassured that this is in any way satisfactorily addressed.
So what do we do? Give up and leave Wikipedia to perpetuate its skewed world view, further erasing women, writers of colour and LGBTQ+ authors?
How about no, we don’t?
A couple of constructive ideas emerged from last Friday’s conversations. The first was having panels at SF conventions where experienced Wikipedians could explain the idiosyncracies and intricacies of editing and updating to people like me who are, for example, unaware of the specific ways in which Wikipedia defines ‘notable’ and ‘citation’, and the vulnerability of certain groups to deletion and challenge.
The second suggestion was making a time slot and space available at conventions for Wikipedians and fans to get together to update and expand author and other SFFnal pages. That would definitely help out all those authors, not only women, writers of colour and LGBTQ+ folk, who don’t have personal assistants, web-elfs or other people who can routinely do this without being struck down as a biased source.
At least as importantly, informed and engaged fans are going to be able to find acceptable citations that a cursory websearch simply will not locate. My updated and now apparently acceptable page is a prime example of this. When I flagged up this issue last Friday, online pals rallied round and crucially, since they already knew all about the many things I’ve done over the years, they used specific and targeted searches to find Wikipedia-acceptable material to link to.
Get a bunch of like-minded fans together at a convention and I’ll bet that adding their knowledge together will prove extremely productive, as someone flags up a Best Of, or Recommended Reads list online that other folk are unaware of, just by way of one example.
How about we try this?
Rochita Loenen Ruiz is a brave, generous and talented author and all round lovely person. She has suddenly, tragically lost her beloved husband, the father of her two young children, to an ultimately fatal heart attack.
We cannot comprehend her bereavement. But we can understand the practical challenges she and her family will face in the next little while. That at least is something we can help with.
As you will see on clicking through, an array of writers and publishers are offering rewards by way of thanks to those offering their support. The number of us doing this (as well as putting our hands in our own pockets) is testament to the very high regard Rochita is held in, within our community.
For my part, if you can offer some donation, however modest, you’ll be in with a chance of winning an ebook bundle of all five Tales on Einarinn, or a hardcopy set of the Chronicle of the Lescari Revolution trade paperbacks. I’ll cover the cost of posting those, not the fundraising campaign, to wherever in the world.