Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Essay: Embracing the Online Initiative

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

The readership of my blog continues to baffle me. You'd think a Filipino residing in the Philippines would draw a big audience from his country but that's not the case. For the past few years, more than half of my readership are Westerners (with some exceptions, such as last week's book blockade). I bring up this topic because the World Wide Web is indeed worldwide (barring US-only sites like Hulu). When it comes to the field of speculative fiction, I suspect there's a lot more diverse material out there, at least compared to three or four decades ago, in part due to the Internet, whether it's readers being more aware of other cultures, or writers having a more convenient method of sending out their manuscripts to publishers (or hearing about them in the first place).

Which brings me to the topic I want to discuss: embracing technology. Not that technology is entirely beneficent (viruses, worms, and spyware for example) but there are some tools which are a definite advantage.

Take email for example. Especially with today's innovations in that medium (i.e. searching/archiving capabilities and significant storage space), you'd think a lot of publications would make the most out of it. But the big three print speculative fiction magazines (F&SF, Asimov's, Realms of Fantasy) don't accept submissions via email. On the side of the editors, I'm not asking that they give up their dead-tree stories, but tracking stories electronically is probably easier than staplers and paper clips (and it's a lot more portable too). Perhaps the reticience in accepting email submissions stems from time and costs (such as actually printing out the stories) in the case of traditional editors. On the side of prospective authors, visiting the post office is one less hurdle they don't have to encounter. Or in my case, the international author, it saves me time (it's there NOW instead of XX weeks later) and money (and perhaps these two factors have an effect on the participation of non-Western authors).

For a time, Realms of Fantasy accepted online submissions for international authors. The policy's gone now and in its place is this Realms of Fantasy seems to have this hypocrital submission guidelines (not that it matters as they're currently closed to submissions and busy getting back on their feet). I include the adverb hypocrital because while they require international authors to submit hardcopies, they will respond via email rather than regular mail. Doesn't that point betray the efficiency of actually using email?

Moving on to more positive topics, I've also noticed some innovations that's developed over the past two years. Since we're talking about online submissions, I'm really impressed with Clarkesworld's Submission Tracker (which was later adopted by Fantasy Magazine). A lot of publications that accept online submissions have some form of tracking (even if it just means the slush reader responding and noting down each and every submission) but what makes Clarkesworld's impressive is that it's a) automated and b) there's a transparent method for writers to follow up on their submission. Not that every online publication should use it (Lone Star Stories for example responds in two days so it's not needed when you're working with such efficiency [or low submission rates as the case may be]) but those looking for a professional and long-term systematic process would be wise to give it a look.

The next innovation I'd like to point out is John Joseph Adams' story database for editors doing reprint anthologies. As an aside, John Joseph Adams is one of those people who's been quite nimble when it comes to technology and finding clever opportunities to utilize them. That he's the assistant editor to F&SF is a credit to the publication and I only hope that in the future, we witness such innovations implemented in the magazine. Back to the topic at hand, Adams' story database template is currently being used by a couple of editors, from Ellen Datlow to Jonathan Strahan to Tim Pratt (I might be missing someone... I'm a stalker, not omniscient). The latest version that I've seen is Pratt's (1, 2). Basically, it lets online readers make recommendations on what stories to incude in an anthology. There's nothing groundbreaking in the technology (it's a public shreadsheet!) but the practical usage of it is. There's also something Doctorow-ish with Adams in his willingness to share the template with fellow editors.

The third innovation I want to talk about is Twitter but it's branching out in two different directions. The first, and again I first witnessed this through Adams, is using Twitter to report events live, such as awards ceremonies. True, that feat can be replicated with live satellite feeds via a TV or radio station, but for those of us who have more limited budgets, Twitter is the most optimum format at this point in time (and something Twitter does better compared to blogs). In this year's Nebula Awards, we had Mary Robinette Kowal (via @sfwa), Mike Allen (@mythicdelirium), and Scott Edelman (@scottedelman) doing some coverage, whether formally or informally.

The other direction is the birth of new publications like @outshine or @thaumatrope. I'm not fond of this new medium but it caters to a certain readership and hopefully will give birth to new "spaces" (to borrow a literary term).

So, what other innovations are you aware of or would like to see in the field of speculative fiction?


Kaz Augustin said...

I'd love to see an Asian spec fic group, along the lines of SFWA but without being so lunatic. And embarrassingly out of date.

I'd love to see more recognition of electronic publishing credits, especially now as the line is blurring between print books and their ebook editions even in "traditional" publishing houses.

I'd love to see more translations of spec fic into English (sorry, but that's my mother tongue), especially from writers in Global South countries. (I mean, when was the last time you read spec fic from ... Chile, say?)

I'd love to see a World SF Con in south-east Asia. Or anywhere that doesn't demand several DNA samples in a cup, or running a gamut of profiling, before I leave the Immigration counter.

I'd love to see more education of high-school students in the forms and utility of spec fic in particular and genre fiction in general.

I'd love to see a network/convention of non-white spec fic writers from all over the world, who discuss issues relevant to spec fic and how it reflects their societies and current struggles.

The list goes on....

Charles said...

Re: SFWA -- if by "lunatic" you mean "politic," I think that's unavoidable in any organization of such a size. Having said that, no one's stopping you (or me) from setting up a Southeast Asian Writing Association or something. (It needs to start from somewhere.)

Right now I don't think it's so much an issue of electronic printing credit as much as self-published or not.

Well they did have a Worldcon in Japan last year (or was that the previous year?). Not quite Southeast Asia but getting there.

Douglas Cohen said...

I'm sorry you feel our accepting email submissions from international authors is hypocritcal. I disagree 100%, but you're entitled to your opinion.

However, I'm afraid we never at any time accepted online submissions. I'm not sure where you're getting this information.

Douglas Cohen
Assistant Editor

Charles said...

Thanks for replying Douglas.

I seem to remember you had this test period for international authors and I got this from your blog. Will have to doublecheck on it but since you're the source, I'll append the blog entry.

Douglas Cohen said...

No worries. Actually, the test period was for replying to international submissions via email. After a number of months went by (six, maybe?), we lifted the "test" label and made it official policy. The difference now is that the official policy is actually being included in the updated guidelines. I tried to get us to include this policy on the old website's guidelines ages ago, but the old publishers never cared enough to make the change. Once the new website moves beyond its current placeholder format, these updated guidelines on my blog should migrate over there.

As to the whole international subbing thing, I'm not blind to it. This is why I suggested to Shawna the aforementioned policy. But that's all I can do, i.e. suggest. Shawna is the editor, and so everything is according to her preference. It would be nice if it were otherwise (in theory, anyway), but publishing is most definitely not a democracy.

And now, just for the sake of poking the hornet's nest (all in good fun, I assure you), I do find it interesting how the spec mags that don't accept e-subs draw this ire, yet I never hear any complaints about, say, Tor Books not accepting e-subs.

Charles said...

Hi Douglas.

Checked my archives and you were right. My error when it comes to the international submissions part. I agree it's a step forward but I wish you guys went all the way.

Not blaming you for it, just as I'm not blaming John Joseph Adams for F&SF. I understand the hierarchy in magazines and it's not you who's making the final decisions.

As for Tor Books example, I think there's not as much ire because of the short story vs novel argument. When we talk about Tor Books, it's probably pitching novels to them and not a lot of writers have novels to pitch, at least compared to the number of short stories they have. Another factor I think is that--and I might be mistaken here--is that some of those publishing companies only accept agented submissions so writers don't need to e-sub manuscripts to Tor, just to their agents (and there's probably a lot more short story writers without agents vs novelists without agents).

But I think the big three draws the most ire because... well, you guys are the big three.

Kaz Augustin said...

Hey Charles! Sorry for the delay. The Dreaded Day Job keeps intruding.

No, by "lunatic", I mean "lunatic". Letting authors accuse other authors of being conglomerations of foreign secret services, not doing the most basic fact-checking on the whole scribd take-down thing, the "pixel-stained technopeasants" comment, the complete disregard for anything that came after the manual typewriter.... Politics is one thing, insane, my friend, is something else.

Which segues into the second point. I, and any other rational person, would agree about the distinction between "vanity" and other, and I agree with you completely. But, again, this is something that SFWA deliberately, imo, refuses to recognise.

Oh yeah, Japan. One out of how many Worldcons since 1939 (excluding the WWII years)? And only recently. And only because Japan is, tbh, the low-hanging fruit of Asia. The 2010 WorldCon is being held in Melbourne. Think there's more spec fic being published and promoted in Melbourne than in, say, the Philippines? As Count Rugen said, "Be honest".

Maybe we **should** come up with our own org to start. Do we have enough spare time? Care to dialogue? :)

Oh, and Douglas, Tor Books **does** draw ire, but it's as Charles points out, there are multiples of short story writers compared to novel writers, so the whine factor is logically quieter for Tor. Plus, novel editors can say something like, "But we can't afford Kindles to read novels on, and the eye strain on esubs would kill us for hundreds of 100K submissions" and what are we supposed to do? 5K vs. 100K? Apples and oranges.

Douglas Cohen said...

A couple of tidbits:

1) The traditional "big three" are actually F&SF, Asimov's, and Analog. I prefer to think of it as the "big four," hence including RoF. Obviously I'm biased, but I think a legitimate argument can be made on this point.

2) I used Tor Books as an example because they're one of the few remaining spec publishers that has a slush pile. And it's a big one! There are plenty of people out there writing novels. If Tor opened up to e-submissions, their would be a significant spike in their already considerable submissions.

3) Hey, I don't have a Kindle either! I make my own hours for this gig. That means sometimes I'll slush on a train. If we were doing this via e-subs, I would actually be less efficient at what I do. And I'm not about to print out every single submission I receive I receive ...heck no!

Charles said...

Kaz:Lunatic - still qualifies as "politic" for me.

Melbourne - Not quite sure at the point you're getting at but yes, Australia does produce a lot of spec fic (and even has their own awards!).

SFSEA - Not for me right now although again, no one's stopping anyone from setting it up.

Douglas:Sure, will concede to #1 (I'm more of a fantasy fan so I actually forgot Analog).

For #2, I feel it's a different dynamic with novels and warrants a different (but just as relevant) discussion.

#3 Sure, I actually mentioned that possibility in the blog entry.

Unknown said...

"I'd love to see a World SF Con in south-east Asia. Or anywhere that doesn't demand several DNA samples in a cup, or running a gamut of profiling, before I leave the Immigration counter."

Well, nothing is stopping you from bidding for one.