Blogger Query – Nethspace

Today it’s my pleasure to bring you a Blogger Query with another of the SFF blogosphere’s longtime contributors, the esteemed Neth, from Nethspace. Neth is one of those bloggers that anyone who has spent some time following SFF book bloggers will have heard of at least once. He was one of the earliest book bloggers I encountered on discovering the blogosphere and I’ve been following his reviews ever since. So for me it was logical to ask him for a Blogger Query and he was kind enough to agree. You can find his answers below.

Let’s start with the basics. Who is Ken?

Ken is just a guy who likes to read and share his thoughts about the books he reads.

I’m an engineering geologist who gets to work on some really cool projects and I’m a husband to a wonderful wife and the father of two incredible children. I serve on the executive board of a non-profit professional society and try to maintain a social life. So, I’m busy, overcommitted and don’t sleep enough. Reading is about the only hobby I’ve managed to hold on to and the blog serves as an outlet for that.

What got you into blogging?

Boredom (and a little help from my friends)

Back in 2006 I was an active member and moderator over at the now defunct Wotmania (particularly the other fantasy portion of the message board). I frequently recommended books to people and was encouraged to flesh things out into review-like forms. The message boards there were terribly formatted and difficult to use, so I wanted a place on-line to hold all of my reviews and recommendations.

Around this time there was this guy named Pat came around asking about starting a up blog and seeking thoughts and advice from many of the active members. He started a blog and it became widely popular. One day when I was quite bored I figured I could start a blog as a place to store my reviews and recommendations since it seemed like a good place for that sort of thing.

I was quite shocked to find a few days later that a whole bunch of people were reading it. And I was even more surprised when people starting commenting – and some of those people were editors and publicists. I started to take things a bit more seriously and asked Pat for some advice. I asked some publicists if they had any books they wanted to send me – I got quite a few. Publishers were always asking Pat if there were other bloggers they could send books to – Pat would send them my way. And things grew from there.

Why Nethspace?

Ah well, as with many on-line identities, it’s a bit silly. My name is Ken, or more correctly, Kenneth. Since I go by Ken for my ‘real life’, I figured that Neth was a good name for my online personality, which is in many ways quite different from the guy most people meet in person and have a beer (or three) with. Once I settled on Neth, I just added Space to the end to properly mark my territory (peeing on the computer didn’t seem like a good idea).

I’ve often considered changing it to something more general that reflects what the blog is actually about, but I like it as it is and I don’t really mind it if I lose some potential traffic because the blog name is a bit different.

What is your unique selling point? Interviews, humour, news coverage?

ME.

I’ve done interviews, I do lots of reviews, I (occasionally) write rants and other discussion pieces. I’ve done other things over the years – random photos, link roundups, cover art posts, etc. But lots of blogs do all those things, and many of them do them better than I ever have.

So, the truth is that the only unique selling point I really have is myself – or more correctly, my perspective, thoughts and opinions. I try to articulate them such that others can understand enough to agree or disagree at numerous levels. I hope that I have some thoughts and opinions that others find rather interesting and valuable. I’ve learned over the years that an attempt to be objective on a blog is silly and that I should really focus on being subjective, though with lots of backup. I don’t do things because I think others would like them, or because I think it’ll be good for my traffic (though there may have been a few instances in early days of the blog). I simply stick with what I find interesting and go from there.

What are your goals for your blog?

Survival – at least that’s what they are right now. I simply don’t have the time I used to – I’m busy, very busy and my reading and blogging time is very limited. So, posting enough to survive is about all that’s on my mind.

But, it really is all about expressing what I find interesting. I primarily do this through reviewing the books I read. I don’t expect that to change, though anyone who counts the frequency of my posts knows I don’t post as often as I used to.

One of the eternal book reviewer debates is to rate or not to rate? Where do you stand on the issue?

Ahh…ratings. Well, I suppose the first point is that I do rate the books I read and have done so since I started the blog. However, you will have to search pretty hard to find those ratings since I don’t actually place them on my reviews anymore. I also do the star ratings at Goodreads.

Now for the detailed discussion: I dislike ratings because they attempt to sum up far too many unrelated things into a single number/rating. So, what happens if I really, really enjoy a book while realizing that it actually has numerous flaws and that ‘craft’ of the writing isn’t really all that sophisticated. What happens when I read a book and recognize that it’s stylistically brilliant and wonderfully crafted, but for whatever reason I didn’t care for it in the end? It’s impossible to reflect those subtleties in a score. Which is why I no longer post scores with my book reviews.

Now, why do I bother with scores at all anymore? For a couple of reasons. I started scoring my reviews because a lot of people really like to see an overall score. It made sense to me at the time I was starting my blog, and frankly at time when my reviewing skills weren’t all that honed.

But, with hundreds of reviews under my belt, each with a numeric score, the nerdy scientist in me can’t help but notice that I’ve got a statistically valid sample to work with. And if I compare those scores with all sorts of numerics of the books I’ve read (such as demographics of the authors, date published, provided by publishers, etc) I can quantify trends in my reading habits, actually have an idea of how consistently I review books, and identify some of my inherent biases. So, the simple truth is that the only reason I still do scores is so I can play around with their statistics. I wish I had more time to do this, but for an example of some what I’ve done, take a look at this post where I try to look at whether or not my scores indicate that I’m easier on books provided by publishers versus books I’ve bought myself (the answer is that I’m not showing any real bias one way or another, but of course it’s complicated and not all factors are controlled for).

As for the typical star ratings at places like Goodreads and Amazon, I find those especially problematic. First, they are full of dishonest and incorrect scores (really, someone shouldn’t give a book 1 star because they couldn’t find it at a store or the price of the electronic copy is too high and let’s not even start on all of the truly fraudulent rankings). But they are also incredibly skewed by each individual’s sense of how the rankings work and the definitions that are used in guidance. Throw in the reliance that search engines have in these rankings and things get even more problematic. For an example of how authors stress over this (and often go too far), check out this review where I was taken to task for ranking a book 1 star on Goodreads. Unfortunately the author didn’t come out looking too good, but I think it’s a good understanding of the constant fear that many authors (particularly new authors) have regarding a low star rating in places like Goodreads and Amazon.

Negative reviews, yay or nay? And why?

I’m all for negative reviews, as they are incredibly valuable pieces of information. A good negative review is often much more interesting to read (and to write) than a positive review. And at least the way I choose to handle them, I want someone to be able to think – ‘all the reasons you hated that book are reasons why I think I’ll love it’.

But the truth is that I don’t write many of them. And that’s more of a reflection of the books I choose to read than anything else. I have very limited reading time, and I choose books to read that I think I’ll like (it’s more complicated than that, but that’s good enough for here). So, most of the books that I read and review are books that I like. But if I don’t like a book I don’t hesitate to say so.

How important are blogs to your reading choices?

Hmm….not as important as you may think. I have lots of books that I know I want to read, and with my limited time, that’s pretty much all I ever get to these days. However, there are a few bloggers out there who I know well enough to be able to judge their opinions versus my own. And I value their opinions a lot.

You started Nethspace in 2006, so you could say you’re one of the nestors of the SFF blogosphere. What has changed in the years you’ve been blogging? How has (online) fandom and book blogging evolved?

Well, first I have to say that I love a good Greek reference, and I of course am quite humbled by the honorific. However, I decided to dig a bit deeper than the typical ‘wizened old leader’ type of one line explanation and I found it quite interesting. Nestor is credited with giving both good advice and completely ineffectual advice, though he is generally unquestioned and looked upon quite positively. So, I’ll take the Nestor reference in a bit of a different direction – the ineffectual one. Many of my contemporaries who began blogging around that time are the true big dogs – Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist (he began in 2005 I believe) and The Wertzone come to mind. Both receive traffic that is at least an order of magnitude greater than my blog. I’ve actually remained fairly consistent over the past 5 years or so without much growth. Which I think says a lot about me as a blogger – mostly that I’m not particularly ambitious and am comfortable with my limited role, but now I’m coming dangerously close to dodging the interview question (given this is an election year in the US, dodging questions seems to be something of a sport, but now I’m digressing even further – no wonder my traffic is so much lower than those other blogs, etc. etc.)

Anyway, a lot has changed over the time I’ve been blogging. Back in the ‘good old days’ I’d literally get emails from publishers begging me to allow them to send me their books. There weren’t many of us, and many of the old traditional print sources of fandom were still trying to figure out what form their online presence should take. Adding to that, I was a pretty novice reviewer back then and I’m still surprised that anyone read those early reviews of mine.

Once it became clear that bloggers were getting free books and relatively easy access to authors themselves, everybody wanted in. Things literally exploded and everyone wanted review copies. This of course as bad – the market became oversaturated, blogs came and went quickly and publishers were left trying to navigate a tricky market, while readers of blogs were drowning in numbers. And all of the free books being thrown around lead to the standard cries of collusion and such that we still see today. [Ed. Note: Don’t we just..]

I think that things have settled down quite a bit. Sure, lots of blogs are still out there and more start every year. But the expectation of receiving free books from day one seems to be diminishing, and bloggers seem to be getting better about figuring out where they fit in to the big picture. And I think that the overall quality of blog reviews has grown quite a bit – or at least the best bloggers now are better than the best bloggers were a few years ago (even though some of them are same people).

It’ll be very interesting to see where things go from here – I don’t think that blogs are a medium that will endure through time (though I could be wrong), so I expect things will change. How much and how fast I’m not sure about. And will I be a part of the change or apart from the change remains to be seen. The honest truth is that I’m happy doing things as I do now and I see no need to change even if everything evolves beyond me. Of course I could change my mind …

How do you think blogs and reviewers fit in the book business?

Well, in a world where neighborhood bookstores are closing and reviews are bought and sold in the dominant places like Amazon and Goodreads, a few good bloggers with known and trusted opinions are especially important. This is the modern version of word of mouth and it’s a crucial part of marketing in a consumer based society. Blogs and reviewers fit squarely in this.

Of course there actually seems to be a pretty good business in writing (fake) reviews, so it’s also a big (and growing) part of the business. Amazon can’t be trusted, traditional outlets like Kirkus can be bought, etc. But a reviewer could make something a career out of fraudulent reviews if they are willing. *I don’t think this is where you were going with this question, but I went there anyway* [Ed. Note: Perhaps not, but it’s your prerogative to answer how you like ;-)]

What is your current read and what book are you most eagerly awaiting?

As I’m writing this, I’m reading Trapped by Kevin Hearne. It’s good, fun, comfort reading for me. Urban fantasy set in Arizona and full of nerdy wish-fulfillment and superficial musings. It’s like candy – I know it’s not so good for me, but it tastes too good to go without. [Ed. Note: And who could resist a dose of Oberon?]

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson is absolutely the book I’m looking forward to most. I’ve been reading this series for nearly 20 years – it led me to internet message boards and eventually to blogging. It’s a trip down memory lane. It’s flawed and still my favorite. I’m sure I’ll be writing a lot about A Memory of Light and The Wheel of Time as the series comes to end.

Is there something else you’re obsessed with other than books?

Obsessed with? Well, my family is about the only thing that comes close to obsession. A boring answer perhaps, but the truth.

However, if you’re looking for more interests of mine – I love the outdoors and things like camping and hiking, I’m a homebrewer, beer snob and lover of Scotch whisky. Traveling is one of the great joys of my life, and I enjoy eating a wide variety of food.

When you travel, you often post a picture of the view out of your room. Which one has been your favourite over the years?

It’s hard to say – probably a picture of a view that I’ve not ever posted. In the last few years I’ve had great views from places like Oakland (great view of the bay), Anchorage, and others. But I suppose in recent times, it would be Romania. That was an awesome experience (even if I worked for the vast majority of it), but I had a wonderful time and experienced a very different culture. [Ed. Note: I remember that trip! I really enjoyed the posts you wrote about your time there.]

Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?

My official system is alphabetical by author in two categories – books I’ve read and books I’ve not read. However, it gets much more complicated. I have books spread all through the house and not just my ‘official’ bookcases. Some are boxed, some are in the kids’ rooms, some are in other categories (such as nonfiction), and others just get stacked on the floor. I used to divide mass-market paperbacks from the others and separate out books I haven’t read between books I bought and books publishers sent to me. But I’ve found that simpler is better.
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Thank you, Ken! I especially enjoyed your in-depth answer on the evolution of the blogosphere. You can find Ken on his blog and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and on Goodreads.

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2 Responses to Blogger Query – Nethspace

  1. So, the truth is that the only unique selling point I really have is myself – or more correctly, my perspective, thoughts and opinions.

    Yep, we are similar in many ways. I don’t take pictures out of my window when I travel, though. Just everywhere else. ;)

  2. Bryce says:

    Really enjoyed this one. I always wondered where “neth” came from and now it seems completely obvious. :) Also, I separate b/w read and not read, good system.

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