Author points

Apparently, I've never mentioned author points here. I'm in a rush, so I'll be brief:

I forget who introduced me to the concept. Zed, maybe? The idea is that author points are an abstract measure of a given reader's trust in an author. When you sit down to read a story, the author may start out with (for you as reader, anyway) some author points (you know the author, you like their work, you've heard good things about their work, the blurb sounds intriguing, whatever); if so, that may make you more willing to trust that they know what they're doing. If the author starts out with no author points or negative author points for you as a reader, then you won't necessarily trust them to know what they're doing.

Authors can gain and lose author points over the course of a story, too. If the reader finds the beginning of the story brilliantly written, insightful, engaging, moving, intriguing, the author gains author points; if the reader is bored or annoyed by the beginning of the story, the author loses author points. If the author builds up author points toward the beginning of the story, the reader may be willing to cut them some slack if the author loses (or spends) points later in the story.

The main point here is that an author who has author points for a given reader can get away with more than one who doesn't.

The particular area where this comes up regularly for me is submitted stories that start out looking like very standard/ordinary examples of a particular genre, plot, or theme. If the author is someone whose work I've liked in the past (whether published or not), they may have enough author points (for me) to be willing to trust that they're not doing the same old thing. But if the author is (for example) entirely unknown to me, the story may not keep my interest long enough to get to the part where, three-quarters of the way through, the author turns things on their head and we learn that this isn't a horror story after all. Or whatever.

The author-points paradigm has its flaws, of course. But I find it a useful way to think about certain things.

9 Responses to “Author points”

  1. John B

    I like the concept of ‘author points’ and I think there is merit. I have noticed this in the Online Writing Workshops where one develops a ‘following’. This following will often cut the author more slack in their reviews than a completey new person reviewing ones work for the first time. Of course, some of the ‘followers’ are ruthless with you, regardless of author points. Those are the reviewers that I treasure.

    This is also an interesting thought when considering a blind slush reading practice, such as Andromeda Spaceways. At ASIM, a story is read by four separate readers, none of who know the authors name. Beginning author points = 0.

    I am not saying that blind reading is a best practice. ASIM does this because their own editors and owners wanted to be able to submit to their own magazine without any hint of predjudice. In other words, they wanted to eliminate ‘author points gained by virtue of being an owner of the magazie’.

    Neat topic, Jed!

  2. Dan "0: The Fool" Percival

    “So,” he said, “why wouldn’t blind reading be a best practice? And remind me, why was it I’m not supposed to shake hornets’ nests?”

  3. Shannon

    Interesting point, however I think as a reader I should point out that it is only relevant for some readers.

    i.e. generally speaking when I am reading author’s names barely register much of the time (most significently in magazines offline, to a lessor extent online). Sometimes, especially in a personal essay piece of writing in something like the New Yorker I find myself pausing in my reading to look back and see who the author of the piece is (usually when the author says something “of course my father knew President Kennedy” etc.)

    Even online there are many places that I read the content before noting the name, or if I do, I may or may not attach context to the name.

    There are, however, some exceptions – generally names that by your concept have “lots” of Author points for me (Cory Doctorow’s writing at Salon gets more of my attention than random articles there; David Sedaris in the New Yorker, etc)

    When I had a subscription to magazines such as Asimovs, I often would just sit down and read it cover to cover – only months later learning that I had just indeed read a story by a friend or someone I knew – possibly as I get to know specific authors better I’ll register their stories more immediately.

    Just a comment from a reader who is not an editor or someone directly and actively involved in the field.

  4. Amy Sisson

    Jed, does this mean you do not read to the end of every submission for which you’re responsible? I’m not implying criticsm of such a practice; authors do have a responsibility to engage their readers, after all. Also, I know that many editors don’t read the entire story — hence, the red line of death. Just curious about your practices.

  5. Will

    Jed, I think you just (inadvertently?) addressed your question from a few posts ago (“I wonder if it’s inevitable that as magazines become more established and respected, they’ll publish more established writers and fewer beginners.”).

    It may not be a function of the magazines becoming established so much as of the editors becoming established. (Though any established magazine filling an empty editor position is more likely to fill it with an established editor rather than a fledgling one, and I think in general a magazine’s name is better known than an editor’s, so folks notice the trend — as you did — as a magazine trend.)

    Authors who have submitted good stories in the past accrue author points with the editor, a benefit they have over new authors. Thus, given an established author and a new author each submitting a similar-sounding story of equal merit, an editor is more likely to take the one by the established author, especially if the decision is quickly-made (which a high submission volume might make a necessity).

    The cycle would appear to be self-perpetuating, and as the established authors build more and more author points, a new author’s story will have to be better and better in order to get selected.

    At least, that’s what I get by synthesizing these ideas….

  6. Jed

    Thanks for all the comments! A few thoughts and responses:

    1. A subtle distinction: author points (the way I use the term) aren’t quite the same as liking a story better (than you would if you didn’t know the author’s name) because you already know you like the author. Author points are a measure of trust in the author; it’s not that they make you more likely to like a story because it’s by an author you like, it’s that they make you more willing to trust the author to do something interesting with the story. To put it another way, author points are most often relevant in deciding (a) whether to keep reading at any given point in the story, and (b) whether to put in extra work to look below the surface for meaning; they’re less relevant in judging how much you liked the story after you’ve finished reading it. Does that distinction make sense?

    2. Author points can come from previous exposure to an author, but they quite often accrue at the beginning of a story by an unknown author. If you start reading a story and the first couple pages make you think “This is really interesting” or “This prose style is really good” or “This narrative voice is really confident” or just “This author really seems to know what they’re doing”—or if the story draws you in so fully that you’re not thinking about it at all, just happily following wherever the author leads—then the author points are adding up. If you think “I didn’t think Rome had an Emperor Julius, but the opening of this story was so strong and so factually accurate that I’m gonna assume for the moment that the author did the relevant research and/or has a reason to make up this emperor,” then the story is reaping the benefits of accrued author points.

    3. I sometimes think blind subs would be fairest. However, for me anyway, positive author points make me more willing to cut authors slack, while negative author points don’t have much effect, so blind subs would mean that I would pay less close attention to subs by authors who I trusted, rather than that I would pay closer attention to subs by authors who I didn’t trust. For example, in my experience, most of the time when a submission starts out looking like straightforward horror, it ends up that way; so if the subs were blind, I would make the assumption that more stories were going where it looked like they were going, rather than fewer.

    4. For each sub that’s assigned to me, I start by reading the beginning. For almost every one of those, I continue reading all the way through to the end (though I know that most editors don’t do that). For stories that are extremely poorly written—multiple grammatical and/or spelling mistakes per paragraph, obviously muddled plotting, completely inept dialogue, etc, especially if the story is long—I skim the middle rather than reading it all in detail, and then read the ending just to be sure I didn’t miss anything big. I also sometimes skim the middle of a story if it looks like it’s going to match something on our stories we see too often list, and if there aren’t extenuating circumstances (such as a lot of author points).

    5. There are a fair number of authors who submit to us who we’ve never published but who have nonetheless accrued author points for me. (And, relatedly but not quite the same, whose work I like, and who I think are good writers.)

    6. To more directly address Will’s comment, it’s true that editors tend over time to find authors whose work they often like, and to publish those authors repeatedly. (But that’s not quite the same as authors who’ve accrued author points.) But I think there are a couple of things working against the inevitability of SH publishing fewer and fewer new writers. For example: (a) the fact that there are other higher-profile and higher-paying magazines out there, so that some of our writers move on to publish more in the higher-profile venues over time; and (b) the fact that we’re actively interested in finding and publishing new writers, so if a time ever comes when we’re publishing very few of them, we may take steps to change that (though we don’t at present know whether we will, or what those steps would be if we do). (Polyphony, for example, carefully selects at least one story for each volume that is the author’s first sale.)

  7. Straw Grasper

    I admit it! I’m vain! I’m vain! I so want to believe I fall within the category in Jed’s point 5 above. Somebody please shoot me now.

  8. Nick Mamatas

    I read with lower tolerance rather than increasing points. If I am reading a writer I enjoy, my standards go up because I know what he or she is capable of. I’m more forgiving of an unknown quantity.

  9. Marsha Sisolak

    I have to agree with you, Jed. I’m not actually tallying author’s points, but your description is basically what happens to me as I read subs for Ideomancer. If I’ve been impressed by previous submissions from an author, I will get farther into a story before I have that gut-level feeling of “Nope. Strike three.” I do read the vast majority of my submissions to the end (or skim, as you do) but I’m not likely to change my mind once I hit that point of no return. However, since that point can occur in the opening sentence or first paragraphs, the writing, plot, characters, whatever, would have to be amazingly good to make up for that blow in the opener.

    As for Straw Grasper, you’re not the only contender for Jed’s point five. ::wiggles in:: I just figure I’m going to be in good company. 😉


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