Bounding Into Comics vs. Fonda Lee

I got to meet and hang out with author Fonda Lee at the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop a few years back. Recently, Lee was at Barnes and Noble and observed:

“This is what modern fantasy writers are up against. In my local B&N, most authors are lucky to find a copy of their book, super lucky if it’s face out. There are 3.5 shelves for Tolkien. 1.5 for Jordan. Here’s who we compete against for shelf space: not each other, but dead guys.” (Source)

Her Tweets got a lot of attention, leading to an article by John Trent at Bounding Into Comics that derides Lee and accuses her, among other things, of criticizing Tolkien. Not that Lee ever did this. Her second Tweet in that thread said, “Before you @ me about the importance of classics, I love LOTR too, okay?” One might almost suspect Trent’s comment, “Lee isn’t the first person to criticize Tolkien,” of being an attempt to stir up shit.

An effective attempt, it seems. Lee has been barraged by Tolkien Defenders over on Twitter.

Trent opens his article with the claim, “Science Fiction and Fantasy author Fonda Lee, the writer of the Green Bone Saga, decried Barnes & Noble for stocking popular fantasy authors J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan.”

Nowhere does Lee say B&N shouldn’t stock Tolkien and Jordan. She’s complaining that these two authors get 4-6 shelves in the B&N SF/F section, which means other authors are left with little or no space at all.

Back to Trent:

“Fonda then explains the business that Barnes & Noble is in. She describes it as as ‘a place of discovery.'”

Lee’s actual Tweet:

“If you think a bookstore should be a place of discovery, who goes into B&N and ‘discovers’ Tolkien? Do they figure people want another 5 copies of LOTR and aren’t interested in all the other work out there?”

Lee isn’t booksplaining the business Barnes & Noble is in. She’s talking about one aspect of bookstores — discoverability. Nowhere does she say that’s the sole purpose of B&N.

And she’s not wrong. For readers looking to discover new books and new authors, 4-6 shelves of two dead fantasy authors is a hindrance. It also makes things harder for other authors trying to get their own work out there.

All in all, Trent’s article seems less about accurate reporting and more about distorting someone’s comments to sic the trolls on her and stir up a game of, “Let’s you and her fight.”

Numerous commenters are happy to take his bait, attacking Lee as an author, claiming she doesn’t write well and she should try “not to suck.”

Let’s see here… Fonda Lee won the World Fantasy Award, the Aurora Award (twice), had her work named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, SyFy Wire, and — oh yes — Barnes & Noble. She’s been a finalist for the Andre Norton Award, the Nebula Award, and the Oregon Book Award. She won the Oregon Spirit Book Award, and was a YALSA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant YA Readers.

Reader, I wish my writing could “suck” as well as Lee’s!

Now, there is a valid point buried in the article and comments. Bookstores are a business, just like publishers and all the rest. Their goal is to make money, and that means stocking books they believe will sell the best. Tolkien and Jordan sell a lot of books.

But there’s also some chicken-and-egg logic to untangle here. All other factors being equal, an author with a three-shelf display is going to sell a hell of a lot better than an author with one or two books squeezed spine-out on the shelf. Bookstores and publishers choose which books to promote, which books to put face-out, which books to put on table or end cap displays, and so on. All those things help to sell books.

Writing a good book helps a lot too, but let’s not pretend that’s the only factor in a book’s commercial success.

The emphasis on these books also sends a message about what kind of customer B&N is targeting. Lee notes that her store had:

  • 18 copies of Lord of the Rings
  • Only 1 copy of the Nebula- and Hugo-award winning The Fifth Season
  • Only 1 copy of Lee’s own World Fantasy Award-winning Jade City

Three titles isn’t enough to make any statistically sound conclusions. But this doesn’t suggest that B&N is interested in a broader, more diverse range of customers, or that they want customers who are looking to discover newer, exciting authors. It feels like “more of the same” marketing. “If you liked this dead white guy’s fiction, you might also like this other dead white guy’s fiction.”

Barnes & Noble knows books by Tolkien and Jordan are reliable sellers. They’re safe.

It’s a choice. B&N has the right to make whatever choice they want about who to feature and how to fill their shelves. Lee’s comments simply point out that this choice hurts discoverability for both authors and readers. She also thanks independent bookstores, which are often more willing to take risks, to customize their selection for their local readers, and to focus on more than just the safe same-old.

I wonder if that’s one of the reasons for the resurgence in independent bookstores

In the meantime, Lee’s book Jade City has been sitting in my TBR pile for a while. I may need to bump it to the top.

Checking In Again

Not too much to report, actually. Which in some ways is probably a good thing.

The Storytime idea I brought up last week is still evolving into its final form. I have an idea for it that I really like, but I need to clear a couple of things with my agent first. This may or may not work out, but I’ll keep folks informed one way or another.

Over in Cancerland, my wife completed another round of chemo. She’s got a minimum of 2-3 more to come, and possibly as many as 5, before we head back to Detroit for the bone marrow transplant. This last round came with the traditional nausea and weakness, but after a week and a half of recovery, she’s doing pretty well again. (Just in time to go back in on Monday to start it all over again.)

In the midst of all this fear and uncertainty and wishing cancer would just go back to hell, I’ve also noticed how much closer Amy and I have been these past few months. No relationship is perfect, and ours has had its speed bumps and potholes. Cancer has a way of shaking everything up and recalibrating your priorities. There’s a lot more appreciation and gratitude and tenderness.

There’s also the simple fact that we get to spend more time together. Take yesterday – I took her in for a blood transfusion, which was supposed to start at 9 in the morning. Thanks to the lab mislabeling one of her blood tests, it didn’t actually start until past noon, and we didn’t get out of there until about 5 or so.

Which meant, essentially, we got to spend a day together just hanging out. A hospital room isn’t much fun, but we watched a bit of TV, read some of A Wind in the Door, went for a couple of walks around the unit, and just got to be together. I can’t remember the last time we were able to do something like that back when we were both working and running all over trying to keep up with everything.

If all goes well, we’ll be going out as a family for a belated birthday dinner for my son, and maybe even sneaking away again to see Captain Marvel before Amy starts back up with chemo. It’ll be nice to have a couple days of relative normalcy.

Who Wants Storytime?

Earlier this week, I caught a news story about a principal who read bedtime stories on Facebook Live for her students (and anyone else who wanted to listen.) It got me thinking about maybe doing something similar with my own stuff.

So, who might be interested in the occasional live reading of some of my stuff? I’m currently thinking about doing it via Facebook, but there are plenty of other platforms, and I’m not entirely sure what’s easiest for everyone.

I’d probably start with doing maybe one a month and see how things go.

Because of audio rights and contract stuff, I don’t think I’d leave a public archive of the readings. Maybe keep them up for 24 hours for anyone who missed them?

I’m still at the beginning of thinking all this through. What do you think?

How to Get Nominated For a Nebula or Hugo

The Nebula and Hugo awards are generally considered to be two of the most prestigious and well-known awards for science fiction and fantasy literature. As a result, lots of authors would really like to win them.

Hugo AwardI won a Hugo in 2012 for my fan writing about SF/F, and I was on the Nebula preliminary ballot once — back when the Nebula awards had a preliminary and a final ballot. I have brilliant writer (and editor) friends who have shelves full of Hugos and/or Nebulas. I have equally brilliant writer/editor friends who’ve never even been nominated.

So how does an author go about getting on the ballot? There isn’t one Right Answer to that question, but I’d suggest the first step would be to understand how the awards work. Authors do not submit their work for consideration for either the Hugo or the Nebula. Instead, works are nominated and voted upon by members of the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) in the case of the Nebula, and members of the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) for the Hugos.

In theory, members nominate what they believe are the best works in each category. From those nominations is born a final ballot. Members vote for the best, and a handful of writers get to figure out how to transport a hefty trophy home. (Taking a Hugo — shaped like a rocket — through airport security can be an adventure…)

All right, if authors can’t submit their work for consideration, what can they do?

Do Nothing.

This is certainly the easiest approach, in many ways. Just write your best work, and trust readers to find it and nominate it for consideration. In an ideal world, this would result in the best stuff being nominated and winning each year.

This is not an ideal world. Some works receive much more publicity and promotion than others. A brilliant book by an unknown author might be seen by far fewer people than a mediocre book by a bestselling author. A story in a popular magazine or anthology will receive more attention than a story in a smaller or more niche market.

Some would argue that doing nothing is the professional and classy approach to awards. I can understand where they’re coming from, and if all else was equal, I’d probably advocate the same thing. But as we’ve seen again and again, all things are not equal…

Post a Roundup of Your Eligible Works

Nebula AwardAs awards season approaches, more and more authors are posting a list of their award-eligible work from the previous year. Here’s mine from 2017, as one example. This works in two ways.

  1. It reminds your readers about stuff they may have read but forgotten about. I had a new book out a few weeks ago, but by the time awards season rolls around next year, people might not remember the continuing adventures of Jim’s space janitors. A roundup post can jog folks’ memories.
  2. It lets people know about work they might have missed. I self-published a Magic ex Libris sequel last January, but because it wasn’t through my big publisher, fewer people heard about the story. Someone who’s a fan of your work might discover something that slipped past them, and decide to check it out and see if it’s nom-worthy.

There will be people who say eligibility lists are tacky and unprofessional. I’m not one of those people (obviously). I see nothing wrong with reminding people what you’ve had published. As a writer and often-nominator, I appreciate the reminders and the chance to check out things I missed.

Amal el-Mohtar has a good post from 2014 on this topic: Of Awards Eligibility Lists and Unbearable Smugness.

Share Copies of Your Eligible Works

Unsolicited: When I first joined SFWA, I’d get a handful of books in the mail each year from authors asking me to consider nominating their books for the Nebula. These days, I’ll get the occasional email linking to a story or offering to send me an e-book for consideration.

I don’t know that I’ve ever nominated something based on this kind of cold-call from a stranger. And in 2019, it gets really easy to cross the line into spam. At least when people were sending me books, they had to look up my individual address in the SFWA directory and pack up the book with a cover letter and pay postage to get it to me.

Nowadays, an email to “Dear Reader” with my email address in the BCC: field is likely to go straight to the junk mail folder.

Posted Online: Making your work available online, or linking to where it’s been published online, is a less intrusive and obnoxious way of sharing your stuff. This goes well with the eligibility list approach I mentioned before.

My contracts often prevent me from posting things online. As an alternative, I usually note in my eligibility post that I’m happy to email a copy of an eligible story to anyone who’s interested and will be nominating. But I’m not comfortable with sending things out unsolicited.

(The corollary here is that if you’re going to be nominating, it doesn’t hurt to contact an author or publisher if there’s something you’re particularly interested in reading and considering for the award. I mean, the worst they can say is no, right?)

Logrolling/Vote-Swapping

“Psst. Hey, buddy — I’ll nominate your book for the Nebula if you nominate mine!”

It happens. I don’t think it happens as much as it used to, though I don’t have hard data one way or the other.

It’s also, in my opinion, pretty dickish. This approach may get you some extra nominations. It will also quickly get you a reputation as That Author, the one who doesn’t give a damn about whether or not a book is any good, and just wants to cheat their way onto the ballot.

Technically, it may not be cheating — but while this approach might not violate the letter of the rules, it’s pretty blatantly cheating the spirit of the thing. And it’s unlikely to win you an award.

Slates

::Dons helmet and flame-resistant suit::

In simplest terms, I think of slates as attempts to organize a group to vote for the same (or similar) handful of works in an effort to get them onto the ballot. (Often, but not necessarily, for reasons other than the strength and quality of the slated work.)

There are a ton of eligible works every year, and people’s tastes can vary widely. Also, not everyone who’s eligible to nominate does so. For these reasons, a relatively small group of people voting in lockstep can have a disproportionate impact on what makes it onto the final ballot.

We saw this for several years with the Hugo Awards, beginning with Larry Correia’s “Sad Puppy” slate in 2014. Those were some ugly, painful, frustrating years. Slates had varying levels of effectiveness at getting works onto the ballot, but slate-nominated works pretty much universally lost — often coming in behind “No Award” in their categories.

Some authors were very deliberately and strategically trying to game the system to get their own work and/or the work of their friends onto the ballots. Other authors were unaware they’d been added to a slate, and were dragged into the resulting mess against their will.

The issue of slates has come up again this year, reopening old wounds for some of the folks who got caught up in the Hugo slate issues a few years back.

What’s the difference between a Slate and a Recommended Reading List? If someone posts a list of who they’re nominating, is that a Slate?

None of these criteria are absolute, but here are some of the things I look at.

  1. Are people being encouraged, explicitly or implicitly, to vote for the same specific set of works?
  2. Is the list mostly or entirely made up of works by members of the same group being pushed to use that list for nominating/voting?
  3. How much of the focus is on Proving a Point?
  4. Is the creator of the list genuinely, visibly enthusiastic about the works?

Like the logrolling/vote-swapping approach, slates can get things onto a ballot, but they also tend to hurt a lot of people, including the nominated authors (as everyone’s left wondering if their work would have made the ballot on its own merits), and those authors pushed off the ballot by this kind of bloc-voting approach.

Buy Lots of Voting Memberships

This wouldn’t work for the Nebulas, but for the Hugo Award, if you bought enough memberships, you could essentially nominate and vote multiple times. It’s been alleged that this tactic was used in 1987 to get Black Genesis by L. Ron Hubbard onto the ballot.

The book did indeed make it onto the final Hugo ballot. It lost, coming in last place, below “No Award.”

In other words, if this was a vote-buying scheme, it was a very expensive way to lose an award (badly) and tarnish the reputations of those involved.

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Inclusion of various tactics listed above is not endorsement (duh). And none of these approaches guarantee your work will ever be nominated. That’s not how this works. Awards are nice, but they don’t define success or failure in the field.

Keep in mind that awards have different expectations and histories and cultures. The rules and expectations for the Hugo or Nebula Awards might be very different from other awards.

Ultimately, my best advice would be:

  1. Write the best stuff you can.
  2. Never assume you’re entitled to an award.
  3. Don’t be a dick.

This got really long. I’m sure I’ve still missed some things. Thanks for reading, and feel free to discuss further in the comments.

Jim C. Hines