Interview with Nerds of a Feather

My guest today is the G from nerds of a feather, flock together.

SCy-Fy: Tell me about a typical blogging day, G.                         

G: Well, ‘nerds of a feather, flock together’ is a group blog with eleven writers, and we cover a lot of ground (books, films, comics, games, etc.). So a lot of my daily activities are related to editing and administering the blog – a set of tasks I share with Vance, who co-founded the blog with me back in 2012. So on any given day I’m acquiring books for our writers to review, tweeting the story of the day, managing special projects like ‘Cyberpunk Revisited’ and so forth. I try to get as much of this done with my morning coffee as possible.

I’m also a writer, though – I post maybe 3 or 4 times per month, mostly book reviews and opinion pieces on science fiction and fantasy literature, though I also occasionally write on crime fiction, comics, films and video games. But I can only write when inspiration hits, so it’s less of a daily grind and more of a “when the iron is hot” kind of thing.

SCy-Fy: What do you consider the blog’s big breakthrough?

G: Well, the two-part interview with Paul Kincaid (part 1 and part 2) was our first really big story. He’d just written a brilliant article for the Los Angeles Review of Books arguing that science fiction appeared ‘exhausted.’ I asked him to do a follow up interview, and to my enduring surprise, he agreed. We were very small at the time, so it was something of a coup. And his answers were mind-blowing. That was the first time our blog really made an impact on the broader conversations in the genre.

SCy-Fy: Far from the only time, though…

G: True. Back in 2013 I also wrote a piece on ‘grimdark’ fantasy – arguing that amping up the gore and violence only interests me when linked to more substantive explorations of causes and consequences of violence. I’ve refined the argument two times since (here and here), but that one made the biggest splash. Some people weren’t very happy with that either, and there were some cogent counterarguments – though in some cases the piece was unfortunately misread as ‘anti-grit.’ As it happens I actually gravitate to gritty and dark fiction, and mentioned that several times in the essay; I just don’t see much value in ‘grit for grit’s sake.’ I like when it’s used as a tool.

But I’d also like to plug Vance’s piece on the decline of the Western and rise of the superhero film, which may be my favorite thing every published on our blog.

SCy-Fy: What are your future plans?

G: We’ve started a few new ventures this year – I mentioned Cyberpunk Revisited, which is a retrospective on cyberpunk literature, its derivatives and legacy. That’s been going strong and will continue until the end of the year – at least.

In January we also started two new post series, Blogtable and Perspectives, which have done really well for us. These are pseudo-roundtables, where we ask three bloggers to respond to a prompt in turn. With Blogtable we ask three guest bloggers respond to something written in-house, whereas with Perspectives we ask three in-house bloggers to respond to something posted elsewhere. We’re going to run both series until 2016, at which point we’ll see if they’re worth ‘renewing’ for another year. And let me just say that our next Blogtable may end up being the biggest thing we’ve ever published.

I should also mention that I’ve just started a column for Tor dot com called “message fiction,” which examines political messages and themes in science fiction and fantasy literature. So that’s something I’m really excited about as well.

SCy-Fy: What do you think will be the major future challenges for SFF blogging?

G: I think it’s important to distinguish between challenges for the practice of blogging, i.e. the posting of informal, essay-length and opinion-oriented content online; and challenges for bloggers, i.e. the people doing that.

Blogging, the practice, seems pretty secure to me. People don’t just want to read SF/F, after all, they want to read about SF/F—reviews, interviews, criticism, personal essays and opinion pieces, etc. And they want it for free. So demand for long-form content seems pretty stable to me.

At the same time, SF/F blogging is currently undergoing some major structural changes, and these pose specific challenges for bloggers – and even more so for would-be bloggers. Once upon a time you could start a blog and, provided you had good content, you could expect an audience to find you. Now the field is much more crowded, which means bloggers have to be much more aggressive about self-promotion than they used to be. This, in turn, creates incentives for “splashy” or “provocative” over “measured” and “careful.” I mean, we’re usually pretty measured at ‘nerds of a feather,’ but we do occasionally publish something provocative – and those pieces inevitably generate traffic. So that’s the reality – the louder you are, the more clearly you are heard. And that’s a major challenge, because being loud or angry or aggressive or provocative isn’t always the best route. Often it’s not.

SCy-Fy: The overcrowding has other effects as well, doesn’t it?

G: Yes. Consolidation is another outgrowth of the crowded field. Though that might seem counterintuitive, the explosion of content a few years ago also makes it harder for readers to filter what’s worth spending time on from what’s not. That privileges sites with daily content and established communities, because it’s “one-stop shopping,” so to speak. And the big sites also sometimes pay for content, or can at least offer bigger audiences. So a lot of talented bloggers transition from writing for their own sites to writing for the big ones.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing – these sites generate revenue and win awards for a reason, and I’m all for individuals taking advantage of the opportunities presented to them. But the situation does constitute an evolving set of challenges, particularly for new or up-and-coming blogs.

SCy-Fy: Tips for bloggers? For reviewers? Writers?

G: I think it’s fair to say that if you want be heard as an independent voice, you are going to need three things: (1) a lot of good content; (2) a commitment to marketing yourself on social media; and (3) a willingness to engage readers wherever they decide to discuss your work. That was already the reality when Vance and I started ‘nerds of a feather, flock together’, but I think the incline has gotten steeper in the three years since we started. So be ready for some hard work.

The other piece of advice I’d give is: try to establish a ‘voice.’ What makes your blog or your reviews different from the ones found in a hundred other places? What’s going to keep people coming back? Just being good doesn’t cut it – you need to be different enough to offer something unique, yet reliable enough that readers have an idea of what to expect. Play a long game, and try to find that voice in your quirks and idiosyncrasies. People like ‘quirky’ when paired with ‘good.’

Oh, and don’t forget to have fun. If it’s not fun, it’s not worth your time.

SCy-Fy: Which resources have you found the most useful?

G: In general I’d say the most useful resources are other bloggers! Aidan Moher and Jonathan McCalmont are two individual bloggers who have, since the start, exerted an outsized influence on me – Aidan for the elegance of his reviews, and Jonathan for being such an incisive critic. There are of course many others – too many to name, in fact, and I’m afraid if I tried that I would just end up leaving someone off by accident and feel horribly guilty about it afterwards.

SCy-Fy: Traps in SFF blogging?

G: Blogging is forever – you can scrub or edit your past embarrassments, but it’s almost guaranteed that someone will remember whatever it is you don’t want them to. So try to make sure you can live with whatever you post before clicking ‘publish.’ But also be prepared for situations in which someone cherry picks a sentence or paragraph and ignores the contextualizing matter, as well as situations in which it’s all on you. In the immortal words of Kenny Rogers, you gotta know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.

SCy-Fy: What has most helped you to keep going?

G: There have been times when I’ve been too busy to contribute much, but luckily I’ve got Vance and our great group of writers to rely on, and they’ve never let me down.

SCy-Fy: What have been the best books you have read recently?

G: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel was the best novel I read in 2014. I also really enjoyed Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkowski, A Darkling Sea by James Cambias, and City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett. I’ve also recently re-read some cyberpunk classics that hold up incredibly well: Neuromancer and Count Zero by William Gibson, and Mindplayers by Pat Cadigan. All worth reading.

SCy-Fy: Which upcoming release are you most looking forward to?

G: No contest – Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski. Hopefully the release of Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt will get more people reading this incredible series.

SCy-Fy: Thanks, G!

G: Thanks for having me!

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