Part of the conversation, the new all-singing all-dancing Web 2.0 site from Tor Books, launched at the weekend. Previously announced on Making Light some months ago (although the timelines have slipped a bit), that post made me feel favourably towards the site before it launched because a post with jokes about Vernor Vinge, underpants, and fanzines feels aimed directly at me.

Now the launch is upon us, what is the site actually about? We have some free short fiction, currently featuring two stories by some guys named Scalzi and Stross who might be famous authors or something. They’re not the most exciting short fiction authors to me, although I will read the new Laundry story, but they seem like good, solid, big-name choices to launch the site, and hopefully future offerings will highlight some excellent but less well-known names.

There are art galleries, featuring lots of pretty pictures by lots of artists. More information would be nice, because I know some of the images are book covers but can’t remember which, but my main use for this website will be when trying to decide who to vote for in the Best Artist Hugo.

And the final section is community, which encompasses a number of things: general user-started forum threads, front-page blog posts by a number of bloggers, and some rudimentary social networking functions. The social networking parts are probably closer to something like Metafilter than Facebook: you can add a brief bio, upload some pictures, see threads you commented in, and follow other users. Some really useful features, like custom RSS feeds to follow only your friends, are not in place yet, and I am having difficulty finding a link to display all posts by a particular poster, but it’s early days yet.

The key bits of content, for me, are the front-page bloggers. It’s an impressive line-up so far, covering wide-ranging areas of(to quote Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s introductory post), “the great conversation that is the subculture of SF—that river of talk, in person and in print, that has surrounded and informed science fiction and fantasy (and “the universe,” and “related subjects”) since SF fans began cranking out fanzines and organizing meetups in the early 1930s”. Jonathan McCalmont is less impressed so far, calling the site “a place of limited opportunity and cowardly commercialism”, but it seems to me that even if is a commercial site funded by a publisher, it’s coming from a desire on the part of the site creators to be part of a larger conversation, to interact with the community, and if that happens to be good publicity for Tor and their books so much the better. I’m not convinced that yet another site is necessary, that it’s filling a niche which would exist if they hadn’t made the site to fill it, or that it wouldn’t have been more relevant and central to the conversation if it launched a couple of years ago, but I’m hopeful that will be the site I hoped io9 was going to be.

6 thoughts on “Part of the conversation

  1. I’m surprised you don’t mention the free pdf downloads that they have until Sunday, which I’ve certainly taken advantage of.

  2. It is ironic that one of the newer posts at is a con report from ReaderCon by one of Tor’s editors, which mentions that one of the quietly pervasive conversational topics at the convention was whether editors in fact edit any more. That ties in with one of my qualms about the new site: it appears to be one more activity that editors are being asked to do, with (we may imagine) a corresponding decrease in the time they can spend actually helping to bring about better books. That Scalzi and Stross are both featured on the new site makes this doubly ironic, as both are authors whom I and several friends have given up buying the works of, precisely because their recent works have felt increasingly in need of a few more rounds of editing and revision. I’m not so foolish as to suggest that these authors won’t make enough money directly and indirectly with their work to offset any loss in readership concerned with quality. But I will suggest that the implications regarding editing and concern for quality in the genre make this, for me, a pretty poor way for a publisher of books to directly enter the genre conversation.

    That said, one of the other lessons of ReaderCon was a reminder of just how segmented and niched genre fans are; how many conversations there now are and how difficult and rare it is for anyone to follow them all. (For example, half of the panel participants — and what seemed like most of the audience — on the “Multiculturalism in Young Adult SF&F” panel had not heard of the Helix kerfuffle.) To the extent that the site may be trying to draw in some of these readers and fans who don’t have the time, savvy, inclination, or just knowledge to be aware of the blogosphere and explore its breadth…well, I can see it, and they may well be successful. I don’t personally see a need for the sort of centralizing site they aspire to be; for me, the Internet is the community, and decentralization is its strength. Reposting 2nd- and 3rd-hand science news headlines I’m already seeing elsewhere from more primary sources has little appeal — and the “value-add” of LOLcats strikes me as just trying too hard. But I can appreciate that they may not be aiming for me as their audience.

    The question then will be how good a neighbor they are. Will they link and post elsewhere (for purposes other than self defense!), and encourage their readers to explore? Or will they refuse to acknowledge the many other established sources of genre information and opinion, instead ignoring or repurposing everything found outside to generate only internal discussion/traffic? I suppose only time will tell.

  3. Tony: Whoops, how did I not mention the freebies? I was skeptical at first, but they sent out some really good books.

    Matt: I don’t know how many of the blogger on the Tor site are Tor editors, but I’m going to assume that the blogging editors know their time commitments and can fit in blogging without compromising the quality of their books. On the subject of Stross’s novels, he freely admits that he is overworked and writing too fast, and presumably the time for extra rounds of revision and editing just isn’t there without it completely throwing out their publishing schedules. I’m not sure whether the editors can do that much until he starts writing fewer books per year. I haven’t read enough of Scalzi’s books to know if there’s a quality drop-off.

    Yeah, I wasn’t that impressed with a post about how cool the platypus genome is, because I have science blogs for that and they were all over it in May when it actually was news, but I can see some people might not know about it and find it cool. Personalised RSS feeds would be good for fixing that. As to how much they integrate with the rest of the blog world, I will wait and see, but I think they’re more likely to become a central, key part of the conversation if they link to elsewhere and acknowledge what else is out there.

    I must get to Readercon one of these days…

  4. I obviously did not have any extra time to give to blogging on; when I agreed to do it, I had a slight worry that it would be at the expense of blogging on my own site or other fanac. So far, that’s not been the case; the writing I’m doing there feels entirely orthogonal to writing I might do on my own blog or for _Plokta_. I am not in any way persuaded that for most writers, writing in one place substitutes for writing in another place. I know that for me, it’s primarily substituting for time that I might have spent playing some silly casual game.

    Patrick’s said a couple of times that he’s aiming for to have the feel of a web version of the focal point fanzine. Now, I don’t know whether this is achievable. What I do know is that we have tried, through Plokta News Network, and the Seattle fans have tried, through trufen, to create a focal point for fannish news, in two slightly different ways. In both cases, the time and energy required to deliver the goods outstripped that available, in a way that it doesn’t with print fanzines (and one of the virtues of, which I’m intending to feature in a post quite soon, is that Bill doesn’t try to engage directly with fans on the site, but just gives editors hosting space).

    The difference with is that it’s got actual staff to do all the soul-destroying backend work. Every time I post I give a little prayer of thanks that I’m not the one dealing with the formatting issues, the spam, the queries, the error messages and so on.

  5. Between Mr. McCalmont’s post linked above and this one on the “sustainability” of on-line reviewing, I think he meant to say “limited opportunity for cowardly commercialism.”

  6. So for, meh. Do we really need another site with blog posts about the hugos when they haven’t read the books, announcing they are a pirate or linking to some other blog?

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