Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

15.11: Digital is Different, with Cory Doctorow

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette, Piper, Howard, and special guest Cory Doctorow

“How do you break in?” is one of those questions we always get asked in some form or another, and it’s also one for which those of us who “broke in” more than a couple of years ago are increasingly unqualified to answer. The path “in” is always changing, and it seems to be changing faster as time goes on.

With the obligatory disclaimer out of the way, in this episode we’ll talk about how “digital” (read: “social media + everything else internet”) applies to building a career as a creative.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Bert Grimm, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Think about a pen name for yourself. Practice the signature.

Thing of the week: Catfishing on the Catnet, by Naomi Kritzer.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: How can you network in the digital era? Start with the role of a publisher — to make a work public, to get the author, the work, and the audience connected. Have a reason to network, something you want to accomplish. Make sure you enjoy what you’re doing. Build genuine relationships. Balance building a presence online with I oughta be writing. Think about the marketing message you need to make. Why should people buy your book? Online, you need content and you need a personality. Right now, you need to be charming online. Pay attention to the audiences, you may want different messages for each of them. Pen names? This is complicated. Professional parallel careers may push you to use a pen name. Is one name associated with a message? Watch for systemic gender issues, non-binary… and different genres. Crossing genres, you may need a pen name. It’s complicated, and it changes over time. Pen names, and online life, are complicated.

[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 11.

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Digital Is Different, with Cory Doctorow.

[Piper] 15 minutes long.

[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Cory] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Piper] I’m Piper.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Cory] And I’m Cory.

[Mary Robinette] We’re joined today by our special guest, Cory Doctorow. Cory, would you tell our listeners a little about yourself.

[Cory] Sure. I’m a science fiction novelist and an activist. I work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is a nonprofit in San Francisco. I live in Los Angeles. I’m Canadian by birth and British by naturalization. I’m a visiting professor of computer science at the Open University, a visiting professor of library science at the University of North Carolina, a research affiliate at the MIT Media Lab, and I’m one of the owners of the website Boing Boing.

[Mary Robinette] So, you have some experience with the digital world there.

[Cory] Sure.

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that our listeners have been wondering about, and this is a thing that I think face… Affects a lot of early career writers is the idea of getting out there and making yourself known. It’s expensive to go places, especially if you’re someplace remote, like Australia. Or, if you just have social anxiety and don’t want to be around people. What are some of the ways that we can network without actually going into meatspace? Just being in the digital world.

[Cory] So, let me start with a general disclaimer. Which is that there is a certain futility in asking writers who broke in 20 years ago what you should do to break in.


[Mary Robinette] Fair.

[Cory] I always remember going to science-fiction cons as a kid and hearing like crusty old people say, like, “Look, if you want to sell a story to John W. Campbell, you gotta throw a manuscript over his transom at two in the morning, and then you buy him a nickel cup of coffee as he’s coming in the door.” It’s like, first of all, he was a Nazi, and second of all, he doesn’t edit anymore. He’s been dead for years. So, I can’t claim to know how you would break in, right? If you didn’t have the common sense, gumption, and stick-to-itiveness to be born in 1971 and on the Internet in the early 80s, you know, you’ve only got yourself to blame.


[Cory] That said, publishers’ role has changed over the years. It’s called into question what the like foundational role of a publisher is. I favor the definition that says that a publisher’s job is to make a work public. That is to say, you identify a work, you identify an audience for it, you take such steps as are necessary to make the work and the author and the audience connect with one another. So one of the things publishers do for writers, in that capacity, is that stuff. Obviously, if you’re not published, you need a new thing to do to bring yourself into contact with audiences. I’m also skeptical of the enterprise of networking per se. Right? You have to have a reason to be networking. I mean, that reason might be that it makes you feel nice, and that when you feel nice, you write well. But you should know what it is you’re hoping to accomplish. If that’s to make people interested in your work because it’s published, or because you hope that having a following will entice a publisher to bring you around, then the one thing I can tell you for sure is that if you’re not enjoying yourself, no one is going to enjoy what you’re doing. This is the golden age of grifty, multi-level marketing schemes, and we all know how creepy it feels to have someone make our personal relationships transactional by asking us if we’ll come to a half hour seminar on sex toys or Tupperware or whatever it is. Or leggings. So you really have to be there for a non-instrumental reason first. If you’re not, then it’s the wrong thing for you. Right?

[Mary Robinette] I’m really glad that you mentioned relationships. Piper, it looked like you had something?

[Piper] I did, actually. So, even though I think I’m in a comparable age to you, I came to publishing at a later stage.

[Cory] Sure.

[Piper] So, again, I’m not breaking in at this time and potentially about a decade ago. But what I have to offer to that is that social media was invaluable to me breaking into my career in two different ways. In one aspect, it was learning to be part of the writing community online, which was my major goal first as opposed to promoting a book. Because I was genuinely just trying to get to know people, interacting with people, and kind of get the lingo of the industry, the relationships that I built were more genuine. They were on Twitter and they were on Facebook. The idea behind that is as people knew I was genuine, they were much more open when they found out that I had something to promote or market at that stage. They were like, “Oh, hey, I’d love to give you a shout out because I know who you are.” Or “I’d love to invite you into this collaboration.” Or “I’d love to invite you into this thing.” So, I built kind of a social network before I had something to market. That said, I would also caution people not to focus so hard on building that network online before you have something, because ultimately what we’re there for is to write. We don’t want to feed too much time into the effort to be online, and to develop a presence online, when really, we’re supposed to be writing. So there’s this weird balance that comes with that.

[Howard] If I can approach the non-genuine elephant in the room of the messaging at the core of author marketing. The messaging at the core is “My book is the thing that you want more than anything else in the world. When you read it, it’s the most fun you’re ever going to have.” But if I say that as my message, no one will believe me. What are the things that I say or due to transmit that message? The message that you want to send for your book… I mean, what I said was almost soda commercial levels of marketing speak. But by saying it that way, hopefully, dear listener, I’ve opened your mind to the way you need to be thinking about that purchasing decision. You want people to buy your book. Why do they want to buy your book? Because they’re going to love it, because they’re super interested in it. How do you convince them of that? Saying that message in other words comes back to being genuine. That’s why it seems so… That’s when marketing seems so evil. It’s why it seems like a lie. If I want people to buy my book as a result of my presence on Twitter, I need to seem like someone they would like to spend time with. I need to seem interesting. I need to feel like a friend. When I appear on panels with other authors, I don’t need to shout out the name of my book, I need to look like someone that they are friends with so that whatever good reputation they have reflects well on me. I know this sounds like evil horrible marketing speak, but as we’re recording this, I’m wearing a necktie.


[Mary Robinette] It’s true. He is.

[Howard] This is one of the lives that I came from and it applied so clearly to what I was doing as an early web cartoonist, I realized that the persona I had online was not read my comic. The persona was I’m fun.

[Mary Robinette] This is a thing that… I come out of it from the theater. My mom was an arts administrator. So when we were doing things in meatspace all the time, one of the things that she taught me was that the other person was always more interesting than you. That what you’re doing is that you are listening to people and you are engaging with them by listening. That works really, really well in person. Online, it plays out differently. There, you have to think about two things. One thing is that I’m glad we’re all talking about relationships, because, like, when you go to your favorite coffee shop, you don’t go because they have the best coffee, you go because of the relationship with the barista, because of the mood, the feel of the place. If any of that shifts, it doesn’t matter how good the coffee is. Similarly, place can be fantastic and have beautiful atmosphere, and if the coffee is not good, maybe you don’t go. So you have to have both things. You have to have content and you have to have personality.

[Cory] I think that there’s a potential that if you’re an introvert or someone who doesn’t want to do this stuff, this can feel like a counsel of despair. There is a kind of hard truth at the center of that. Which is that different technological moments favor different modes of creator. You talked about live entertainment. Well, obviously before there was live recording at all, the like most dispositive factor in the success of a performer was not virtuosity as much as it was stage presence. Right? When the phonogram comes along and the radio comes along, it becomes a completely different market for the arts. Suddenly, it’s… In the absence of seeing the performer, how good does the performance sound becomes much more important than that like numinous difficult to pin down thing that happens when you see a riveting performer. We’ve all had that experience of being at a show and being completely taken away by it, and then watching a YouTube video of that same show and having… Being, like, oh, I hear where he missed those notes and whatever. But it was that feeling of being there that that performer was able to create. This moment really is a moment that is very good to people who are good at being charming online. So my favorite example of this is Jo Walton, who’s a wonderful, wonderful writer. She’s not just a wonderful writer, she’s just a spectacularly interesting person. Especially in print online. Her career started with her writing really interesting message board posts in rec.arts.sf on USENET that were interspersed with really good poetry in rec.arts.sf.poetry. That led Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who is now the vice president at Tor, but was then an editor at Tor to ask her if she had a book. Now she’s won a Hugo award for best novel. He solicited a novel from her on the strength of the voice in her prose. There are people who, I’m sure, would write wonderful novels who couldn’t pull that off. It’s actually a pity that they’re going begging, but it is what it is. Right? We live in this moment.

[Howard] That story illustrates another marketing principle that I stress when I’m doing my Marketing 101 presentation. Which is that your message goes out to different audiences. My message to the person who’s going to buy my book and read it as a consumer is this is the funniest use of $15 you’ll ever whatever. My message to a publisher is this book will be easy to edit, and I will be easy to work with, and we will make lots of money together.

[Cory] Yeah. I actually think that the third one actually isn’t even as important as the other two.

[Howard] Well, and…

[Cory] I think there’s a lot of editors… I mean, every editor wants to book a best seller, but they also just don’t want to have their lives made miserable by those terrible writers.

[Howard] But those first two are key. When you have relationships online, when you have relationships at conventions and you are talking to fellow professionals, when you are talking to agents and editors, yeah, pitching them your book is different than pitching them the fact that you are personable and professional and easy to work with. I’ve had people come up to me… I’m always sad that the answer is no. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “Do you have a book yet?” Because they’re ready to work.

[Mary Robinette] So, I think this is a good spot to pause and do some online promotion. Let’s…

[Cory] Sure.

[Mary Robinette] Talk about our book of the week.

[Cory] Yeah. Let me pull it up on my phone here, so I get all the details right. So, the book that I’ve chosen is Naomi Kritzer’s forthcoming debut novel, which I think may have been published by the time we do this episode. It’s coming out in November. Naomi won the Hugo award in 2016 for a short story that was absolutely brilliant called Cat Pictures, Please. That was about an AI that wanted cat pictures. Her new book, her first book, is called Catfishing on the Catnet. It’s kind of a novelization of this. It’s about these close knit online communities that are… Where many of the participants turn out to be all the one AI. About the adventures that they get to in the AI defending them and they defending each other and the AI, and ultimately what happens when the world discovers there’s a general-purpose AI, and it really likes cute pictures of cats. It sounds like a madcap comic novel, and there’s a lot of racing around it, there’s a lot of chase scenes, but what makes it so endearing and lovely is the relationships that she draws. It’s about these tightknit online communities where, on the Internet, no one knows you’re an AI who likes cats, but they do know that you are someone that they trust and even come to love, and about the depth and feeling of communities of intent online. It’s written with all of her style and verve. It is a first novel, in the best sense of the word. It feels like a novel that someone spent their whole life thinking about. It’s full of so many grace notes, so much sly humor. It’s really a wonderful book. I can’t recommend it enough.

[Piper] Awesome.

[Mary Robinette] That’s Catfishing on the Catnet by Naomi Kritzer.

[Cory] By Naomi Kritzer.

[Mary Robinette] That’s… She is a fantastic writer. I’m very excited to see this novel.

[Mary Robinette] So, let’s actually talk about the idea of community online. But specifically, the personalities that we create. One of the things some people wonder about, especially women going into writing, is whether or not they should have a pen name. Often, people who are in a professional setting, do they need to create a persona for themselves as a shield? What are some of the pros and cons of that? I’m going to keep riffing until someone else jumps in.


[Piper] I’ll jump in. So, for those of you who may or may not know, Piper J. Drake is a pen name. In fact, it is my second pen name. I originally started publishing as P. J. Schnyder in science-fiction steam punk paranormal romances.

[Cory] Thank goodness you didn’t say I was originally John Norman.


[Mary Robinette] All the nope.

[Howard] So many wrong answers.

[Piper] Actually, P. J. was derived because of my handle on Prodigy. Way back. So that was always fun. So the reason why I chose a pen name, because I had a lot of people say, “Hey, why aren’t you proud of your work?” In particular, there’s also a question for Asian Diaspora, as to why you pick a pen name that sounds… Please excuse the phrasing, but rather white bread. There’s a whole lot of complexity that you can dive into that. But from a professional standpoint, the reason why I picked a pen name was because I do maintain a parallel career in a corporate environment. While most of my coworkers and colleagues all know that I write as a parallel career, my clients do not. My clients could potentially feel that there is a conflict of interest or a conflict of focus, if they perceive that I’m working on stuff other than their project or their particular objectives and goals. So I opted to use a pen name, so that I continue to have this parallel career. Also, I was already published with whitepapers and speaking publicly under my real name. I wanted to keep that content separate.

[Howard] That’s… At risk of trying to bucket things in a way that makes it look like it all fits, that… The idea of message. If your name has become associated with one message, using that name to send a different message can be difficult.

[Piper] Yes.

[Howard] If your name gets associated with a message as an author, and the message is, “I write fun hanky-panky…”

[Piper] Which I do.

[Howard] Which you do. That message may not fit well with your tech customers in your day job.

[Cory] It’s the spicy Cajun Visine problem.


[Piper] Visine? You know what, that would be a bad idea. [AAAH!]

[Mary Robinette] I just hurt thinking about that.

[Howard] Spicy. Cajun. Visine.


[Cory] Yeah. Now, all that said, I have to say that, for me, being someone who’s 1 inch deep and 10 miles wide and is known for having a lot of things going on has been a real strength. It… For one thing, it makes people think of me and lots of different contexts, right? People think of me as having something to say beyond just the narrowness of the field. It, I think, rebounds to my favor in terms of getting invited to forums that are not necessarily just science-fiction forums. There is, in terms of like market differentiation, market planning, you can try and get a bigger piece of the science-fiction pie, but the science-fiction pie is not very big. When you look at kind of runaway bestsellers, they’re all books that appeal to people who just don’t buy books. Right?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Cory] J. K. Rowling did not capture 100% of the book reading public, she captured 5% of the non-book reading public. That’s what made her one of the best-selling novelists of all time. Right? So having… Being known for lots of other stuff is kind of interesting. I did want to say that the… I can’t speak to one’s experience as a writer, but I recently read a book called The Future Is Female by Lisa Yaszek from Library of America Press. It’s a book about women pioneers in science-fiction. My mentor was Judith Merrill who moved to Toronto after the 1968 police riots because she didn’t want to raise her kids in the States. So we benefited in Canada from her presence there, and Judy plays a big role in it. One of the editor’s theses, from having talk to these writers and their editors and their children and so on, is that a lot of the women who wrote under pen names did so, not because they didn’t want to be known as women, but because they all had high-powered careers. A bunch of them were spooks. So, they were working in the Office of Strategic Services, which was the precursor to the CIA. They just didn’t want to be associated with… Like, they had to keep a separate identity because it’s sensitive military industrial roles, which I was really fascinated by. One of my other mentors was Tanya Huff, who began her career writing under T. S. Huff, but switched to Tanya Huff, I think in part because it became an asset to be known as a woman who wrote military SF. That was like, that was not so much a curiosity as a benefit, that we all know what dudes write like when they’re writing military SF. Women writing military SF are interesting and have a… Are a break from the fare as usual.

[Piper] I write…

[Mary Robinette] But one of the things about this is that we are dealing with systemic issues, right?

[Cory] Sure.

[Mary Robinette] We can go down this rabbit a pretty long way, but one of the things that happens is that publishers actually print more copies of books by men or a male sounding name because bookstores buy more of them, because reviewers review more of them. So book… The publishers them, recognizing the higher demand, print more books by men, so the bookstores… So there’s a cycle that happens.

[Cory] Sure.

[Mary Robinette] In the United States, 48% of the books of science fiction and fantasy is written by women and 52% is written by men. But when you look on the shelves, only 18% is…

[Cory] Wow.

[Mary Robinette] That’s an average. I have been into stores where it’s… The only person on, the only woman that they had shelved was Ursula K. Le Guin.

[Cory] Wow.

[Mary Robinette] Literally. Not…

[Piper] I use to follow your tweets about being in the airport and counting how many female authors there were in the science-fiction/fantasy section versus men. It was just very… It was a clear demonstration.

[Cory] How does that break down indie versus B&N?

[Mary Robinette] So, that’s a great question. It… That is something that is… The… What I have found is that it is slightly better on the indie side, but not universally. Yeah. One part of that is that a lot of indie bookstores are owned by women.

[Piper] Also…

[Mary Robinette] But the best ratio I’ve ever found was 34%.

[Piper] Also, we want to take into account the fact that we’re acknowledging and we are respecting now that there is a non-binary factor…

[Cory] Of course.

[Piper] To this consideration as well. So, pen names don’t necessarily have to indicate gender. But systemically, people will default towards what they think the name should be.

[Cory] Sure.

[Piper] Case Alexander, for example, is a great… Great, great author. Amazing. She used to be Karina Cooper. That’s when I met her. She wrote seamy, steamy steam punk. Then she changed to T. C. Alexander, and then… Actually, is it she there or is that they? I apologize, Case, I forgot. That’s terrible. I will fix it in the notes. But, Case also writes as Case Alexander. Really, really kick ass sci-fi. Case is non-binary. There are a lot of people who are queer or non-binary.

[Cory] Yeah, that’s a good point.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. It’s something that is difficult to track in a bookstore. So, basically, what we’re saying here is that when you are choosing your pen name, you’re thinking about the relationships, but you’re also… There’s not an easy answer there. It’s also an answer that is going to shift over time.

[Piper] And across genres.

[Mary Robinette] And across genres. Like, if you’re in YA or romance, it’s… It… You are… That was another thing, when you look at the… Where women who write science-fiction and fantasy get shelved, a lot of times they get shelved in YA even if they are actually writing something that is adult.

[Cory] Wow.

[Piper] Sarah J. Maas comes to mind.

[Mary Robinette] Yes.

[Piper] But also, if you cross genres… I was asked to switch from P. J. Schnyder to a new pen name because I wrote paranormal romance and sci-fi and steam punk, and I was switching to romantic suspense. So they asked for a new pen name to give me a fresh start with readers who would not normally be open to my previous genres. So that’s a thought, too.

[Mary Robinette] So, dear listeners, what we’re saying is it’s complicated and it changes all the time. There’s… It’s a moving target.

[Piper] It depends.

[Cory] Nancy Kress was one of my writing teachers at Clarion, and one of the pieces of advice she had for women writers was that you’re probably going to divorce your husband, statistically. So think long and hard about whether or not his name is going to go on your spine because she hasn’t been married to Mr. Kress in a very long time.

[Mary Robinette] That is a fascinating and… Terrifying POV. Also, something…

[Piper] I’m just giggling here, like, I can’t comment on that one.

[Mary Robinette] No, I’m just like… I’m like, wow. That’s… I mean, that’s a state… Yes. That’s a statement.

[Cory] Yep.

[Mary Robinette] That’s a claim.

[Piper] That is a point.

[Howard] That is a thing that someone said that I cannot now unremember.

[Cory] It’s not terrible advice. I think that picking a pen name… If you’ve just taken a married name, picking a pen name that isn’t your married name or not isn’t the worst idea in the world. Kind of hedges your bets.

[Piper] [garbled] names complicated. [Picking pen names is complicated?]

[Mary Robinette] The name’s complicated. Online life, complicated.

[Mary Robinette] This was a very helpful episode, I think, because we’ve left you with as many questions as you started with. We’re going to wrap up by giving you a homework assignment. The homework assignment that I’m going to give you is I want you to think about what your pen name would be. It’s very easy for women to think about this because we’ve seen a lot of examples of it, but I want to make sure that everybody thinks about this. I want you to think of a name, and name, that is decidedly female. I want you to think of a name that is nonbinary, that you can’t tell anywhere… Could be anywhere on the spectrum. And, I want you to pick a pen name that is decidedly male. See what those things feel like as names. But, here’s the catch, I want them to all feel like you.

[Piper] Added bonus challenge. Practice the signature.

[Mary Robinette] For… That’s a good one.

[Cory] Ooooh. Did anyone else… Was anyone else smart enough to not use the signature that they use on their checks to sign books?

[Piper] That’s me.

[Cory] I still… I’m dumb.

[Mary Robinette] Bonus content at the end. Make sure that your legal signature and your autograph do not match.


[Howard] Also, get Cory to sign a book for you.

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.