August 2012

How would you run a self-publishing award?

by Suw on August 23, 2012

I interviewed The Guardian’s Sam Jordison about the challenges of expanding the current Not The Booker literary prize to include self-published books for my Forbes blog, but didn’t really have room to consider how one might actually run a meaningful award for self-published authors. The Not The Booker awards currently works by allowing people to nominate traditionally published books in the comments on an opening blog post. These are then winnowed down to a shortlist through public voting, but for a vote to count the voter must include a short review of the book to show that they’ve actually read it.

The problem with a self-publishing award based on the same principles would be just the enormous tsunami of shite books nominated in the first round and the horrendous gaming of the voting system in the second. Because, let’s be brutally honest here, there is a lot of dreadful crap put out by self-published authors who have yet to develop the skill to understand that their work is sub-standard.

And, as Sam put it, “there are some real loudmouths with monstrous egos” out there, and you can guarantee that any system based solely on a popular vote would cut out lesser known authors with awesome books in favour of the egotists. Given the apparent correlation between being a loudmouthed twat and producing shite work, the results of such a contest would likely be disappointing.

So, how would one do it? First, let’s examine some of the problems we’d have to solve: 

1. Scale. There are a lot of self-published authors out there now, over a million by some accounts, and any prize for them would have to have a nomination system that could scale well. It is, however, unclear how many self-pubbed authors come from the Not The Booker catchment area of the Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland and Zimbabwe, but even if it’s only a tenth, that’s still a lot of people. (The Not The Booker has basically the same rules as the Man Booker Prize, which is its foil.) 

2. Quality. As mentioned already, a lot of self-published novels are awful, with bad dialogue, characterisation and plotting, dreadful grammar, and typos scattered liberally throughout. Many that tackle those problems lack the polish that a good novel has, reading more like a first than a final draft. 

3. Plagiarism. I’m not sure how big of an issue this is, but certainly there’s enough of it about in self-publishing that I think it’s worth considering as a potential issue. 

4. Gaming. There is absolutely no doubt that there are some self-published authors who would find a way to game the system to ensure as high a ranking as they can, thus pushing out more modest and lesser-known authors. Any system has to ensure a level playing field for all nominees because popular doesn’t mean good and in my opinion what’s needed in self-publishing isn’t another popularity contest. 

My feeling is that, because of the nature of these problems, much of the process would simply have to be automated or crowdsourced. I’ll outline first stab at a possible process, but I’d be more than happy for people to point out flaws and better ideas in the comments. 

I’d start off with a system where the authors self-nominate by uploading their manuscript, in full, complete with their details and any relevant metadata to the awards website. The current system that the Not The Booker has where books are nominated in the comments of a blog post simply isn’t scalable and would become a massive headache. 

The first phase of checking would run each manuscript through plagiarism software to make sure that someone’s not sneakily uploading another, more talented author’s work under their own name. It wouldn’t necessarily be perfect but it would stop the most egregious cases. Any manuscripts flagged by the system would be reviewed by a human being and the flag either lifted or the work disqualified. I doubt there would be many so this stage shouldn’t be a big deal. 

I would then run the manuscripts through a spellchecker. It’s amazing how many typos some self-published books sport, many of them mistakes that should have been picked up by a simple proof. Any book with a significant number of typos is likely to be shite in other ways too, so manuscripts over a certain typo threshold would be flagged for review by a human.

For this, the human checkers could easily be crowdsourced through something like Mechanical Turk. Anyone with half a wit can tell the difference between a typo and an exotic noun and it’d be simple to create a test to make sure that people know the difference, and a sensible interface to allow people to mark the genuine typos. Manuscripts with too many typos would be tossed. 

For the next step, we’d need a large pool of readers, preferably with some sort of experience in editorial but definitely with a clear understanding of what makes a piece of writing good or bad. I think you could probably recruit these volunteers from the public if you put together a short test to make sure that people had the ability to discriminate between competent and shite writing. 

Then the first 1000 words of each manuscript would be anonymised and given to an odd number of randomly selected readers, say three, and they’d be asked to mark it out of ten simply on the quality and style of the writing, not on characterisation, dialogue, plot etc. The manuscripts with the worst total scores would be discarded, and those with the best would go on to the next stage.

Because you would have more than one person reading each excerpt, you’d get not only a fair view of how competent the writing was, but also a sense of how certain people were that the writing was competent. I’m nicking this idea off Galaxy Zoo, the citizen science site where people classify galaxies according to type. If everyone who views a galaxy says it’s a spiral, then you have 100% confidence that it is a spiral, but if half of people who look at it say it’s a spiral and half say it’s an elliptical galaxy, then you have less confidence. 

So if a manuscript got all 8s, 9s or 10s, then you could be very confident that on a technical level, it was competent. If it got all 1s, 2s or 3s you could safely discard it. And if it got some 8s and some 2s, you would know you had Marmite on your hands. 

I think this is how to deal to deal with the scaling issue. If you got 1,000 manuscripts submitted, and you want each excerpt read three times, and you think each person is, on average, going to bother to read five excerpts, then you need 600 volunteers. That might seem like a lot, but I don’t think it is, given how many people volunteer for citizen science projects. This is citizen literature! What could be more fun? 

By the end of this stage, you’ve winnowed out manuscripts that include plagiarism, have bad spelling, and those with the worst abuses of grammar, punctuation and style. You’re now left with a selection of works that are, hopefully, competently written.

Here, there’s an option. You either insert another stage where the readers with direct, relevant editorial experience grade anonymous manuscripts based on their literary merits, or you just pick the top 100, say, and there’s your longlist. The best route would depend on how many good judges you’ve got and how many manuscripts you have left. 

The process thus far should avoid any biases on the part of the readers because of the anonymisation, and cannot be gamed because the authors aren’t involved. What’s more, it’s gender blind and genre blind, allowing for plenty of surprises in the longlist. 

I’ll note the Not The Booker longlist this year had 72 entires and was about one third female, though none of them made it through to the shortlist. I leave the question of why that should be as an exercise for the reader.

The next stage, though, could then take on the normal Not The Booker format with a public contest based on 100+ word reviews, rather than simple votes, to create the shortlist. This is when the authors get to rally the troops, the passionate discussions happen in the comments, and everyone gets to dig in and dirty their hands. The final judging of the shortlist happens the same way as usual too, with reviews and discussions and so on and so forth. 

Now, it is true that the system I’ve outlined would require some setting up, but it’s more than possible to do. We have, as they say, the technology. And if a self-publishing Not The Booker was established, it would be well worth the trouble of developing a robust system to deal with the submissions as it would not only get used year after year, it could also reveal some interesting trends in, say, the number of women authors, the popularity of certain genres, the increase/decrease in overall quality year on year etc. 

Of course, I’m sure I’ve missed something blindingly obvious, or made it too complicated in some way, so please do say so in the comments! 

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The story of an annoying sac of liquid

by Suw on August 15, 2012

I’m back at my desk today for the first time since I had my grapefruit-sized ovarian cyst removed last Thursday. Although I’m not feeling particularly intelligent today, I am free from pain for the first time in months and I’m very happy with the speed of my recovery.

I thought it might be worth just recounting the full story, because in my search for information on ovarian cysts I got a lot of the same basic facts over and again, and lots of fora where women get together to discuss their experiences, but very little in the way of “this is what it was like for me”. I could have really done with reading someone else’s story of their ovarian cyst, if only to have some sort of frame of reference.

That said, if you find this blog post because you either suspect you have an ovarian cyst or because you’ve been diagnosed with one, please bear in mind that different people have different experiences. You might find that yours is radically different to mine, so don’t take anything here as medical advice or any sort of prediction. This is just my story.

It’s actually a story that I think started years ago. Now that the cyst is gone, I realise just how it made its presence felt. Looking back, I realise that it was there at least five years ago, if not longer. I can recognise a point at which my periods got heavier, longer and more painful. More recently, probably a year or so ago, I started getting minor spotting before and after. That was, I suspect, another warning sign.

Yet another long-term warning sign was the sensation that there was ‘something in the way’, something that seemed to move out of the way, but which had been there so long that it seemed just normal. It’s funny how we can convince ourselves that something which, when you spell it out like that sounds deserving of immediately medical investigation, can become just a part of normality.

But all those warning signs did become a part of normality. I ignored them, assumed that they were just a sign of getting a bit older. I even ignored a brief episode last year of hot and cold flushes, which may have been some sort of bug or may have been the cyst causing a temporary hormonal wobble.

I really was foolish not to go and get a check-up. Partly that was down to my ongoing irrational fear of doctors (long story), partly it was down to not really believing that anything was wrong and not wanting to waste anyone’s time.

If you have had any of the above symptoms and haven’t been to see a doctor, go now. You aren’t wasting anyone’s time and the doctor will be as happy as you are if it turns out to be nothing. But if it’s a cyst, or something else, you want to get it treated sooner rather than later.

So, fast forward to early January. That’s when symptoms really started to manifest, specifically I started to find that pretty much everything inside my pelvis had become tender. Going for a wee was just slightly painful. Sometimes going for a poo was the same. I ignored it again, or tried to.

Deep down, I was worrying a lot and wondering what the hell was going on. I didn’t tell anyone, I just fretted away to myself, lying in bed, wondering why having a wee sometimes felt so much like hard work. I didn’t even mention it to my husband, I just tried to rationalise it away. I can be a real idiot sometimes.

Because the tenderness came and went, though, I felt that the symptoms were too vague for me to take to a doctor. Again, that was stupid. Have I mentioned that I can be really very stupid at times? I can. Persistently.

Over the Easter long weekend in early April, however, I woke up in agony and Kevin and I went to the walk-in clinic at the local cottage hospital. They took a urine sample, diagnosed a mild urinary tract infection and gave me antibiotics. The end of that week we went to the US for a holiday, but the pain returned. I had had a urinary tract infection – the analysis of my urine was clear on that – but that was a side show. The main act had yet to reveal itself.

As the discomfort and pain increased, I realised that I was going to have to go and see my doctor, except I hadn’t actually got round to registering with one in the months we’d been in Woking. We managed to do that pretty quickly, thankfully, and I was given an appointment with a doctor who has a good reputation on gynaecological issues.

She took a look, had a poke about, and said that the only way to know what was going on was to do an ultrasound. She gave me a number to ring at the local hospital and sent me off.

Now, herewith a lesson for local hospitals: When you switch your lines on, don’t have an interim message that says “All appointments are full for today” in between the “Lines are closed” message and the point where people are actually answering the phones. I was calling at 8am, as lines were only open between 8am and 10am for appointments that day or the day after, and I kept getting this damnable message that all appointments were full. That wasn’t actually true. Only when I rang one day at 8.10am did I find out that there were plenty of appointments each day,  I’d just been served the wrong message because I was ringing a fraction too early.

The ultrasound easily picked up the cyst as the source of my problems. It was 8.0 x 8.5 x 9.5cm, sitting centrally in my pelvis and crushing my bladder into a boomerang shape. It was also crushing pretty much everything else that got in its way.

As cysts go, it was one of the better sort to have: a simple sac of fluid with no signs of any solid bits. They did a blood test for any cancer markers, just in case, but a simple cyst like this is very unlikely to be cancerous, I was told. The tests came back clear.

It was a huge, huge relief to know finally what was going on, and I wished I’d acted earlier. If I had, the wait that ensued then to get my op would have been much less unpleasant. As it was, I experienced a lot more pain than I would have. My poor bladder struggled to cope with my normal levels of tea drinking and I had to ensure that I didn’t ever let it get full because that was agony. I was waking every night in pain as the cyst settled on top of one organ or another, crushing it. Painkillers became essential every day, but they often left me feeling woozy and vague.

I didn’t have a particularly long wait, as waits go, but it really was an unpleasant time. I found it hard to focus on work and didn’t really want to go out. I didn’t dare drink alcohol as I never knew if I’d need painkillers later or not. I wasn’t able to go for more than about an hour or two without needing a wee, which is fine when working from home, but less good if you’re not near a loo. And I would be woken two or three times a night either from the need to pee or the pain.

I could have avoided all that if I’d just gone to the doctor in January. Or a few years ago.

The pre-op assessment was pretty easy going: Just a few questions about my health, allergies, and habits, another urine test and an MRSA swab to make sure that I wasn’t infected. (MRSA doesn’t just hang out in hospitals.)

In the end, the operation went off without a hitch. The surgeon told me that they would first insert a needle in through my belly button, inflate my abdomen with gas, then open up an incision in the same spot to send in the camera. Once that was there, they’d be able to see exactly which ovary my cyst was attached to, as that had not been clear in the ultrasound. As I expected given the relative pain, it was my left ovary.

They then made very small incisions along my bikini line both centrally and on the left, drained the fluid out of my cyst, then removed the sac itself. The operation scars are small, neat and tidy, and I’m healing well.

(Note, I might have the exact sequence of events wrong, so any gynaecologists who want to clarify the procedure, please be my guest in the comments and then I’ll update the post.)

The nurses, doctors, surgeons, everyone I met at St Peter’s in Chertsey were wonderful. They were kind, friendly and comforting. I was especially happy to see a nurse by my side in the recovery room as I came round. She stayed with me the whole time, watching my monitors and making sure that I was ok and although we didn’t exchange a single word, I was very grateful for her presence.

Coming round is, though, a strange experience. I had been told that there was a high likelihood that I would be able to go home that day, but I was very aware that time was ticking. There was actually a clock in my line of sight, and having been walked off to theatre about 3.15pm, I was surprise to see myself not waking up until 5.45pm (precisely).

I really fought for consciousness, because I didn’t want them to think that I wasn’t going to be well enough to go home. But that whole fluttery eyelids thing you see on TV? Yeah, did that. Once I had my eyes open, the next battle was to keep them open, and to start really getting a grip on consciousness instead of just idly batting it about like a cat with a dead mouse. Overall, that process took a full hour, and then there was a bit of a wait for someone to take me to the ward.

Kevin happened to call the ward just as I was being wheeled in, and was by my side within minutes, which was a relief. Then it was a case of waiting, both for more painkillers, although I felt pretty damn chirpy by 9pm, and for the various layers of nurses, junior doctors and senior doctors to come and see me and say if I was ready to go home. I was, and we left at about 10.30pm. It was glorious to sleep in my own bed!

Now, one of the odd things about abdominal operations, I was told by the surgeon, is that the nerves that serve your diaphragm also serve the tops of your shoulders and any irritation to your diaphragm can cause pain in your shoulders. My diaphragm did indeed get irritated, and oh boy, they were right about the pain! If I breathed wrong, it felt as if someone was trying to stab their way in through my shoulders. Painkillers helped, but I found myself regulating my breathing to reduce the pain. It worked. Mostly.

Thankfully, that was gone within 24 hours, though, and the rest of the pain has been very manageable and happily decreasing more each day to the point where today I feel almost none.

So there we are. I’m still recovering, though I’m very happy with the improvement over the last week. I spent this morning at my desk but suspect this afternoon might be spent napping and watching crap daytime TV from the sofa. I’m determined to take the advice I give everyone else when they are recuperating: Take it easy! There’s no point rushing a recovery, you only make it take longer overall.

And finally, if you’re in any doubt at all about whether to go and see a doctor about some vague and nebulous symptom, please, just go. Better to find it’s nothing than inflict unnecessary pain and anguish on yourself.

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Out of Office

by Suw on August 9, 2012

I’m off to hospital this morning to get my ovarian cyst removed. The last couple of months especially have been a bit miserable, and I’ll be glad once today is over. It’s a general anaesthetic, which I’ve never had before, but I should be in and out today and back home by tonight. And i can’t wait! 

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