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Your Past May Be Out There 30 June 2013

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Random Thoughts.
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Today I discovered that I still have a MySpace profile. Remember MySpace?

It was under an old email address to which I no longer have access, so I’m lucky I was able to make an educated guess at the password and get in to sweep away the cobwebs and tidy the place up. A bit of dust gathers after seven years, you know?

So… do you have old profiles hanging around forgotten on the interwebs? And do they represent who you are now?

When the world moves on from a site or service, it’s easy to lose track of what might still be around. And as you develop in your life and career, you’re probably not the same person you were a decade ago (at the superficial level of profile pictures and status updates and bands you liked and so on). But if someone is curious about you — a potential employer, publisher, reader, fan, romantic prospect, new friend, or someone you admire — a tiny pinch of Google-fu can turn up all kinds of odd things…

And… I just found my forgotten first blog, not updated since 2007. Great.

(Now you’re going to go Google yourself, right? Tell me if you find any surprises…)

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Reading Through Filters 28 October 2012

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Random Thoughts.
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We all read through filters of one sort or another.

Some filters are highly specific. There’s expert knowledge — the cop who rolls his eyes over procedural inaccuracies, the doctor who shakes her head over medical impossibilities — and there’s genre expertise — the avid science fiction fan who recognizes themes and plots that seem fresh to more general readers, the 18th century literature student who recognizes allusions and in-jokes that most other readers would miss. Without the resources to hire expensive expert consultants at every turn, there’s not much an editor can do but hope nothing too egregious slips by.

Other filters are recognizably subjective. When a dude dismisses a story as chick lit, or a “serious” reader with a preference for award winners and the literary elite dismisses a story as fluff, a subjective filter is being applied — the story is being judged in comparison to the reader’s preferences. The reverse can happen, too; a fondness for a particular theme or interest in a set of characters can cause a reader to overlook prose issues or plot holes, and even fill in gaps and ascribe depth to the material that isn’t there. Genre conventions sometimes permit and even invite elements that would, in a different context, be met with scorn.

The most subjective filters of all are, of course, filters of emotion. It’s virtually impossible to be purely objective when reading a story by a spouse, child, or dear friend. Nor is it reasonable to expect objectivity or even a rational response when reading a story that triggers some past personal trauma.

Personally, I don’t think anyone is capable of reading entirely without filters. The reading experience is a combination of what the author gives to the story and what the reader takes from it, and any time perception and interpretation and taste come into play, we’re automatically applying our filters to what we’re taking in — sometimes even to the point of not actually hearing what’s being said or absorbing what’s on the page.

The big question is where the responsibility lies for recognizing those filters.

One can’t say that the end reader “ought to” realize that s/he is reading through a complex set of preferences, biases, emotions, and possibly specialized knowledge. That’s not a reasonable demand, because the end reader (by which I mean someone who buys or borrows or is given a book to read for his/her own pleasure — the end consumer, in a reading sense; the general public) isn’t answerable to anyone for his/her reading. If I choose to pick up a random book and read it, I don’t have to justify that choice or provide a critical assessment of that book; it’s just… what I happen to be reading. We are all, sometimes, end readers and entitled to just enjoy (or, er, not enjoy) a story without having to explain ourselves.

On the other end of the spectrum, publishing professionals absolutely must recognize their personal filters and guard against them. When choosing and recommending reading material for others, it’s staggeringly important to be self-aware and to strive for an impartial, objective assessment. Particularly when it comes to rejections, for example, a responsible editor needs to make choices based on readership preferences rather than personal preferences. I’m not perfect, but I do my best, and it’s not unheard of for me to ask one of my co-editors for an additional opinion when it comes to a story that I recognize to be outside of my individual comfort zone (e.g., “guy humour” — sometimes I need to ask a male editor about those ones, because I *know* I’m just not appreciating all there is to be appreciated). I’m including professional reviewers and librarians in this category, with huge respect, both for their roles in recommending books to readers and because there’s an expectation of impartiality and having the best interests of the end reader at heart.

But what about independent book bloggers, commenters on stories at EDF, social reading enthusiasts connecting on Goodreads and LibraryThing? Somewhere between a public professional life in reading (editors, publishers, professional reviewers, librarians) and a completely private life in reading (someone who just reads for pleasure or self-edification and doesn’t talk about it), there’s a grey area of what one might call personal commentary. There’s no professional requirement or standard to start a book blog, to write a review and post it on a social reading site, to get involved in commenting on stories published online. And there’s absolutely no way that an external source could impose moral/intellectual requirements or standards on personal commentary, because it’s just that — personal. Websites can ask for courtesy and delete responses that fail to comply, block specific words earmarked as inappropriate, or hold comments for moderation until a staffer has a chance to review them for suitability, but there’s no way to make participants recognize or turn off their natural filters.

The question is, do readers engaging in personal commentary have any responsibility within themselves to recognize and/or acknowledge that there may be filters involved in their perceptions?

I don’t know.

On the one hand, I want to recognize every reader’s right to have a genuine and natural opinion without worrying about what it means or whether s/he should feel that way. On the other hand, as soon as one engages in expressing an opinion in public and to strangers, isn’t there some responsibility to balance that opinion with an acknowledgement of the factors that might influence it?

And then, I suppose that’s the funny thing about responsibility in general. You can’t make someone else take it. It has to come from within.

Getting Comfortable With Paying for the Right to Consume 18 November 2011

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Random Thoughts, Uncategorized.
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On Wednesday, a tweet from Books on the Radio and subsequently a Facebook discussion drew my attention to an article titled “RIAA claims you do not own your iTunes music purchases“.

Well, no, of course you don’t, and you probably don’t own your ebooks either. Didn’t everyone know that?

Any time the consumption of content is dependent for access on a proprietary system or service, ownership is impossible. If your music files are (legally) playable only on iTunes, or if your ebooks are (legally) readable only on an app or product from Amazon or Apple or wherever you bought them, you don’t have the free title implied by the word “own”. Your privilege to consume the media you’ve purchased can be withdrawn if the content seller ever decides to block or close your account, and the fine print gives them the right to do just that.

Buying digital media in any proprietary format is essentially the same as paying for access to any other digital content — playing a MMORPG such as World of Warcraft, watching movies through Netflix, etc. — the only difference is that, instead of paying a monthly access fee for the privilege of accessing the content, music and ebooks are often (though not always) accessed on a per-item payment basis. And based on what I’ve seen, no one seems overly troubled about not “owning” the contents of Netflix or WoW. No one expects to be able to keep on accessing the contents and benefits of those sites after cancelling their subscriptions.

This suggests that as a society of digital content consumers, we are getting comfortable with the concept of paying for the right to consume it without needing to own it.

Still, we seem to have a bit of a problem when it comes to ebooks and digital music.

Could it be that we still think of “books” and “music” as physical objects? After all, the idea of a book or a CD/cassette/LP as an “ownable” item is pretty much ingrained in us.

I remember my uncle giving me a paperback copy of Dragonflight for Christmas about a million years ago (I was probably about thirteen or fourteen, not sure now) — I still have it, a little bit dogeared and more than a little bit loved, and with it goes the memory of that Christmas and the thrill of discovering a new favourite author. I have an equally cherished old paperback Signet Classics edition of Romeo and Juliet that accompanied me on many kayak camping adventures with my father, as one of our rituals after making camp for the night was to read Shakespeare aloud. And I have an ancient audio cassette of Servant’s Caught in the Act of Loving Him, given to me by a boy named Caleb from my swimming class in the summer of 1984 — his parents were in the band — I’ve often wondered what happened to him. I could go on, listing dozens if not hundreds of other cherished books and tapes, and later CDs, that I’ve gathered over the years, each one tied to a special memory or associated with some place or time or holiday or event in my life. Many are signed by the author, or inscribed by the gift giver with date and occasion.

The point is, we form attachments to physical objects.

Readers have never owned the content of printed books either. Listeners have never owned the songs they’ve played. That’s what copyright is all about, and those little messages saying all rights reserved and no part of this publication may be reproduced, etc.

But we were accustomed to owning the physical representation of the creative material, and inherent in that ownership was a lack of limitation as to how we could treat it — not the content but the physical form in which it was purchased. No amount of legal wrangling can really prevent people from doing as they please with material objects that they own, whether that’s buying and selling, or lending and sharing, or giving as gifts and hoarding as treasures. The physical packaging of creative material hovers between two worlds, since it blends the right to access and consume the creative content (a permanent, indefinite license for as long as the item survives in a consumable form) with the ownership of a physical object (with all the marketplace value and sentimental attachment that implies).

Ebooks and digital music have no physical representation. There’s no object to be owned, and nothing to which you can form an attachment — one digital copy of a text or music file is generally indistinguishable from another, so it’s impossible to feel sentimental about a particular collection of bytes. There’s no rational difference between access to an ebook and access to a sweet apartment in Second Life; both are content that one entity can licence the use of from another entity, under whatever terms both parties can agree on. As long as that works for you, embrace the digital age. Just don’t assume that you “own” anything.

If the first part of the problem forms when we expect to have some form of ownership of ebooks and digital music, because we’re conditioned by the past to expect ownership of “books” and “music”, the second part of the problem forms when content vendors present the licence to consume as “ownership”. Netflix and WoW don’t pretend anywhere along the line that you own anything; it’s clear to everyone right from the top that the subscription involves access and consumption, not ownership. But sellers of ebooks and digital music know that on some level we expect to “own” our books and music, so words like “licence for personal use” and “access to content” (and the limitations around that licencing and access) are not placed front and centre but tucked away, nowhere near the “buy it now” button.

Going forward, I think that consumers of digital content are going to develop an increased understanding of what it is that we are buying — that our comfort level with paying for the right to access and consume digital media is bound to grow as it becomes more and more the norm. I also hope sellers of digital content are going to support that comfort level by being honest about what it is that they’re selling, rather than playing on our physical-object possession impulses.

For myself, when I want to own a book, I will buy it in hard copy — preferably as objectively lovely an edition as possible (I personally tend to favour foil-stamped clothbound hardcovers with beautiful dustjackets and nice quality creme pages), preferably from a bricks-and-mortar independent bookstore — and whenever possible I will have it signed by the author. I will ask people who give me print books as gifts to incribe them with the date and occasion, and I will remember and value the giver and the occasion whenever I re-read the book. I will embrace my object-possession impulses.

On the other hand, when I just want to read something, I’ll go and browse my favourite digital content stores and, if I see something I like at a reasonable price for access and consumption, I’ll go right ahead and pay to download it, without expecting “ownership”. I can live with an indefinite long-term rental.

“Needs Editing” Is So Easy To Say 13 November 2011

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Random Thoughts.
3 comments

“The first paragraph needs editing.”

“This whole piece needs a further round of editing.”

“Isn’t anyone editing this stuff?”

“Could be improved with more editing.”

“Needs editing.”

Right. And even, fair enough. But helpful? No.

We see some variation on “needs editing” regularly in the reader comments at Every Day Fiction. It’s also a popular critique from new slush readers who don’t yet have much experience with the job. And what it really says is: “I didn’t think this was good enough/up to my standards, but I either can’t be bothered or don’t know how to pinpoint what I didn’t like about it.”

To be helpful and to avoid the appearance of laziness or lack of critical thinking, “needs editing” needs to be modified — “needs editing for verb tense issues” … “needs editing for overuse of modifiers” … “needs editing to achieve smoother sentence structure and flow” … “needs editing to correct awkward and unnatural dialogue” …

However, looking at any of those examples, can you tell me how “needs editing” adds anything except a pretentious scold to the problem being addressed? Even as an editor I try to avoid applying those words in critiques unless I am discussing a specific issue that can be addressed through a revision of the (unpublished) piece.

Furthermore, once a piece has been published, “needs editing” is pretty much a slightly offensive way of saying “this isn’t good enough for me” — it assumes that the author hasn’t already edited the piece to the best of his/her ability, and it implies that the publisher of the piece should have done better, either by editing it properly or by not selecting it in the first place. Of course, I’ve no doubt that there are some people who do assume and believe exactly that, and feel no compunction about saying so, but I also know that many readers fall back on “needs editing” as a quick and easy generic criticism without thinking too hard about it. I don’t like to think of well-intentioned readers getting lumped in with the self-righteous orifices like that, but it’s bound to happen — in commenting on writing, as in the writing itself, word choice does matter.

(As for me, no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to help applying mental tags like “lazy” and “clueless” and “rude” when I see those “needs editing” comments. Sorry, and all that.)

That Genre Known As Literary 6 February 2011

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Random Thoughts.
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I’m not sure exactly how “genre” fans get away with bashing “literary” writing, and “literary” readers and writers get away with mocking “genre” fiction, given that “literary fiction” is just another genre. It has its various styles, techniques and conventions, just as every genre does; it has its past masters and its modern greats, as do all other genres; and it has just as much imitative dreck as any other genre, too.

I think the problem might be that the word “literary” is confusingly close to the word “literature”, which suggests that there may be some relationship between the two (other than that both involve reading, obviously). But to make that assumption presents a serious problem: it means that either you have a special limited genre only open to total geniuses, and less-than-perfect writers are not allowed to call their work literary, or you have a situation where free passes to the genius club are issued to anyone who writes literature… er, literary fiction.

Can you imagine a world in which only the most skilled writers were allowed to term their fiction romance, and anyone learning his or her craft who attempted a romance piece would be mocked and told to call it humour or just “other” instead? Or a world in which any science fiction story was automatically considered literature?

So, no. The literary genre does not somehow equal great literature.

Literary fiction does mean an emphasis on style, form and language. The literary voice is often distinctive. Story arcs in literary fiction are often more subtle than in other genres, and may appear in the form of a character arc, a moral or emotional arc that takes place within the protagonist. Does this make it automatically better or worse than any other? No. That would be down to the writer’s skill.

I don’t believe in a free pass for any genre, I don’t believe in a genre label that excludes the less-skilled, and nor does it make sense to me to deride any genre as a whole.

In my work for EDF, I read stories of every genre and style from writers of all skill levels, and there’s just one thing I know for sure – a good story is a good story, and when it grabs you and won’t let go, you don’t even notice the genre label.

A Sad Divide 13 December 2010

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Random Thoughts.
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I’ll start right out by saying that I’m not going to name names or link to blogs or anything like that, because I’m not pointing fingers here – this is more a general commentary on the state of things in the publishing world, as underlined by a few things I’ve read recently on various blogs and sources of publishing news.

What I want to know is, why are we fighting each other?

The whole publishing industry is in flux right now. No one knows how things are going to roll out down the road, though it’s pretty clear that publishers (and agents and editors and writers) who refuse to change with the times are going to get left behind. All of us are trying to feel our way forward in a maze of shifting technology and access points that connect the writer to the reader.

In a world where any self-styled “editor” with internet access can set up a “magazine” or a “publishing house” (and any self-styled “writer” with internet access can self-publish his or her books), we are right to be cautious and use common sense, but sadly I have noticed an us-against-them mentality that I don’t like to see. Naturally when a publishing house is caught in wrongdoing, it should be brought to light and the writing community needs to be warned, but too many agents and writers seem to take the attitude that publishers in general are evil and out to get the poor good-hearted writers who only want to make a living, while too many publishers seem to feel that writers in general are greedy and want to grasp all they can and leave the poor broke publishers struggling to make ends meet. It’s ridiculous – no one goes into publishing or writing to get rich, so we must be in the game for the love, right? And if it’s for the love, why hate half the players?

I’m not saying that anyone should literally do it only for the love, as in, for free; it stands to reason that writers want to be paid something, and that everyone who supports the writing field (agents, reviewers, editors, publishers, book designers, publicists, agents, printers, web monkeys, you name it…) would like to make the odd dollar too. It also stands to reason that readers would prefer to read for free or at least as cheaply as possible, but that’s a whole other story. I just don’t understand why any writer chooses to see all publishers as the bad guys, or anyone who works in publishing chooses to see all writers as the bad guys. I don’t doubt that there are bad guys on both sides, sometimes, but it doesn’t justify all the negative attitude I’ve been seeing, especially when single isolated incidents are translated into industry-wide generalizations, and assumptions are made and disseminated without fact-checking or personal experience.

Seriously, it would suck to be a small starting-out publisher who wakes up tomorrow to find that a rising-star author whom you’ve never even met has pinpointed your fledgling house as something so pathetic that one is better off self-publishing. It would suck to know that the “token advance” you scraped together to attract your first writer wasn’t seen as good enough, that the pricing and and royalty spreadsheet that you’d painstakingly worked out so you could be sure of breaking even was being mocked, and that your presumed lack of big-game experience made you unworthy of even taking a shot.

Seriously, it would suck to be a cutting-edge literary author whose bold choice to self-publish led only to a trainwreck . It would suck to have listened to internet advice about how books should be priced rather than paying attention to your own mathematics and common sense, leaving you literally losing money on every book sold, and to have believed that “real bookstores” don’t take print-on-demand books and so committed to a print run that produced boxes and boxes of books whose pages curled and whose cover colour wasn’t what you’d wanted.

Seriously, it would suck to be an old-school editor downsized from a big traditional publishing house in this economy, maybe without the technical skills to compete, maybe in an age group where employers start to look at you as a liability. Or a brand-new graduate with a Master’s degree in publishing, answering phones or slinging coffee because there are no (paid) job openings in your field.

Seriously. This game is hard enough for everyone. Let’s not hate, ‘kay?

Feeling the Love 18 February 2010

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Random Thoughts.
3 comments

It’s been tough lately. EDF’s slush pile is mountains high, and the decisions ultimately come down to me. With nasty commenters lurking around every corner, hating every story and casting aspersions on my editorial skills and integrity, I was starting to doubt myself and second-guess every decision I made. 

The EDF team made a decision to crack down on nastiness in the comments, and that helped a bit, but my confidence was still seriously shaken.

And then I saw THIS. And then THIS. And I’ve been smiling all day.

When a story sticks in someone’s mind and speaks to him or her, when someone is compelled to re-read a piece two days later, when someone feels she or he would have been sorry to miss it… that story has done its job right. When I’ve had a hand in bringing that story to publication, when I was the one who said ‘yes’ to it, I know I’ve done my job right too.

None of this is even about me — it’s all about the stories and their authors — but I’m feeling the love anyway.

Would You Tip a Guy Handing Out Free Lattes? 7 September 2009

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Random Thoughts.
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Imagine a guy standing on a street corner handing out lattes. Or chai, hot chocolate, whatever suits your fancy. And he’s just handing them out, not asking for anything in return — he’s got a tip jar, though, on the pavement near his feet.

A little further down the block, there’s a smiling girl with a tray of sandwiches and an empty paper cup marked TIPS. “Help yourself,” she says. “No charge.”

There is also a café that serves hot drinks and sandwiches, right there in the same block: eight-dollar paninis that you can have cold or grilled, the coffee made from expensive beans.

Do you buy the $8 sandwich and $4 latte from the café? Or do you take the free ones from the nice people standing on the street?

You take the free ones; of course you do. We all do, and if the supply of free food is constant and continues for long enough, the café goes out of business. The real question is: do you give the latte guy and the sandwich girl a tip? (Oh, and you might also wonder who’s paying for the food.)

Just in case anyone has missed it, this is really about web content.

Online readers don’t want to pay, and they (you) don’t have to. It’s the street where free food is handed out. The donate-now buttons are easy to ignore.

Writers want to be paid. It’s a profession, it has value, those pennies-per-word are earned, dammit!

The publishers are supposed to figure this thing out: pay the writers what they’re worth, don’t charge the readers anything, hope the Google Ads at least cover the webhost bills. The way I see it, there are currently only two solutions — backing from a group with money and an agenda (which kind of moves away from the point of pure unbiased journalism or an untainted commitment to quality fiction), or else sales of tangible products and commercial services (books, t-shirts, training courses, etc.).

This means that if Latte Guy wants to make money, he’s going to be selling you Amway (or at least an enviro-friendly travel mug) while he makes your free coffee. And Sandwich Girl would like to talk to you about faith and the state of your soul.

Judging A Competition Is Hard 1 September 2009

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Random Thoughts.
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When I was asked, recently, to assist in the judging of a flash fiction competition, I thought — no problem! After all, it’s essentially the same task as what I do every day, or so I assumed.

But…

Making an editorial decision means judging a story only against itself and against the standards of the publication it’s being considered for: does it meet our definition of a story, will it appeal to our readers, is the prose up to our standards, does it have a theme and an impact on the reader — does it achieve what it sets out to do?

Notice that those are all yes/no questions. Each story is either a yes or a no for the magazine. It’s not always easy, exactly, especially in borderline cases, but the practice and habit of it are simple.

Judging stories against each other is hard. Stories aren’t meant to be judged against each other, just as different fruits aren’t meant to be ranked on a scale; I like plums better than pears, say, but that doesn’t make plums better than pears in general — unless the plum in question is perfectly ripe and the pear it’s being held against is a bit too soft or hard.

Picking out the poor fruit is easy enough. This one is overwritten and exploding with purple prose, that one is flavourless and doesn’t present much of a theme. But once the list has been narrowed down to the real contenders, ranking them is the devil’s own job.

I didn’t know that before, and now I do.

Brace Yourselves for Sunset Romance in September 29 August 2009

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Random Thoughts.
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Coming soon to an ezine on your screen…

Looking at Every Day Fiction’s calendar for September, it suddenly struck me that we have rather a wealth of sweetness and romance featuring older people coming up. Of course, when I say “wealth”, I mean three — but ordinarily we go months without publishing even one of those. We’ve also got plenty of humour and sci-fi, but we’re a bit short of serious literary fiction.

At the end of last month, putting together August’s calendar, we were scraping around for light humour pieces and swimming in dark suspense and horror.

These things have a way of coming in waves, in bunches — not just genre, but something more specific, like romances between seniors. Sometimes I wonder whether they’re connected by some prompt or writing group exercise; maybe when I notice a pattern, there really is a pattern.

Or maybe it’s just coincidence.

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