My books do more social networking than I do

I discovered yesterday that several people (or, as it may be, several robots) had found the blog by Googling ‘tzenni malabranca’, and this led me to discover that the books have shown up on a site called Shelfari. (Warning: it looks like Shelfari were putting up confusing pages that would spam everyone in your email address book with automated emails if you weren’t careful in 2007 – I would hope they’ve addressed this, but exercise caution) What I find fascinating about this is that they’ve got a list of characters and places, and it’s obviously automatically generated. Here’s the list of names from The Maker’s Mask:

* Lady Tzenni
* Innes
* Alister
* Majed
* Jahsvir
* Sikander
* Zikkili Braschi
* Lady Rosalind
* Sorszenna Hawkwood
* Kjarten Helm
* Aetius Hawkwood
* Lella Placidia
* Latinus Malabranca
* Kapellan Prime
* Ligeia
* Lady Melati
* Caitriesse
* Rikee
* Lady Vikenai
* Pietro Valdia
* Tzenni Boccamera
* Hart
* Lady Boccamera
* Hendryz
* Volkov
* Marco
* Khoury
* Dio
* Abigail
* Lucastine
* Shainault
* Malik
* Draa Bianchi
* Lorenzo
* Latinet
* Enid
* Lellet

They haven’t done a bad job of picking out character and place names from the text by any means. They don’t seem to have worked out that Lotus Hart had a first name, and they’ve failed to notice Lady Stephanie Volkov altogether, but in general it’s a good effort.

The first thing that tipped me off that it was an automated list was that they had ‘Latinet’ and ‘Lellet’ as separate character names whereas they’re actually nicknames. Then I noticed that they thought Shainault was a person and that St. Rune, Vangelina St. Cloud and, for some reason, Catha were places. I’m going to give them a pass on thinking Rouen was a place too, because if you give your characters geographical names you have to expect that kind of thing, though I am slightly disappointed that the software didn’t think I’d written a highly coloured tale of the French Foreign Legion, set around that romantic desert stronghold, the Casuarina Fort.

I’m wondering where they found an online copy of the book to scrape the names from, and since guessing that the ‘look inside this book’ feature on Amazon probably features somehow, particularly as Shelfari is owned by Amazon.

What’s fascinating me is what these automated lists of characters and places link to. If you click on, for example, Rouen, you get a list of books which mention the city of Rouen. Useful, you’d think, if you’d just read a book set in Rouen and loved it and wanted another one.

But if you click on ‘Lady Rosalind’, you get a list of all the books on Shelfari featuring a character called Lady Rosalind. (Fewer than I’d expected, actually – maybe all the background characters in Regencies are answering to Bethany and Megan these days) And the page says ‘This character appears in 8 books’, which… well, no. I think it would be quite entertaining if my Lady Rosalind popped up in a Regency novel, but I really doubt that’s what’s happening.

Can you imagine what happens if you have a character in your book called John? I really doubt that’s the same John in all those 27604 books, you know.

I have to admit, I’m slightly confused about why an otherwise prettily designed site that’s been around a few years would be doing something like this. I can see that it’s interesting to see how many other people called a character Latinus, say, or Ligeia: but if you were trying to use it to work out which books were part of a series or even trying to find novels about Mary Queen of Scots, it would be no use at all because the false positives would drown out the signal. I wonder whether it’s a mismatch between what would be helpful to readers and what you can do with an automated script – I know that the Archive Of Our Own has a team of volunteer ‘tag wranglers’ who go round separating mentions of the character called Gibbs who shows up in NCIS from the character called Gibbs who shows up in Pirates of the Caribbean, and I’m not sure how you’d do that except by hand.

Do you use any ‘which books have you read’ sites, and do you find them useful? I have to admit I don’t, because I’m not that organised, and also if I were to type in the backlog of everything I’ve read starting with whichever it was of the Ladybird Readers at the age of two years eleven months and working my way up to Stephen Goldin’s Tsar Wars which I’m enjoying immensely at present I’d be here until about November. And if I don’t do all that groundwork they just recommend me things I’ve already read.

Finally, on the subject of automated scrapers of books, some years ago I ran Word’s ‘automated summary’ feature on what was then one long book, and got this:

Innes took Tzenni’s hand.
Tzenni blinked. Tzenni gulped. “Innes!”
Tzenni blinked.
Tzenni blinked. “Innes!”
“Lady Tzenni…”
“Tzenni. “Lady Tzenni? Tzenni nodded.
“Lady Tzenni…”
Tzenni shivered. Tzenni blinked. Tzenni breathed. “Innes.”
Tzenni frowned.
Tzenni frowned.
Tzenni nodded. “Lady Tzenni. Tzenni blushed.
Tzenni frowned.
Tzenni blushed.
Tzenni turned. Tzenni hesitated.
“Innes. Tzenni shivered. Tzenni waited. Tzenni demanded.
Tzenni hesitated.
Tzenni nodded.
Tzenni nodded.
Tzenni hesitated. Tzenni’s… my Tzenni. “Tzenni…”
“Tzenni! “Innes!” “Innes,” said Tzenni. Tzenni’s hand. Tzenni breathed. Tzenni shivered. Tzenni nodded. “Innes.”
“Tzenni. Lady Tzenni. Tzenni blinked. “Innes. Tzenni nodded. “Innes,” said Tzenni.

I’m not sure what it proves, but I think Word 97 was a Tzenni / Innes shipper.

The Maker’s Mask Shelfari page
The Hawkwood War Shelfari page

The books on LibraryThing

The books on GoodReads

Image from

12 thoughts on “My books do more social networking than I do

  1. Er, one of those robots might have been me (presently half-way through TMM) wondering if anyone had written fanfic…

    1. I am sorry to have accused you of being a robot! Peter got what he thought were robot indexers on his blog the other day, so the thought was on my mind.

      I don’t think there’s fanfic yet, though aella_irene keeps threatening to write it and I’m not-particularly-secretly hoping it becomes a Yuletide fandom one of these years.

  2. Word 97 was definitely a Tzenni/Innes shipper! Entertainly, despite being completedly random, that summary still sounds like a Regency comedy of manners somehow…

  3. Word 97’s fanfic is hilarious.

    I use Goodreads – I’m not by any means trying to put in all the books I’ve read, or even all the books I have, but it means I have a list of books I’ve read in the past 3 years and counting, which I quite like having. Otherwise I tend to go ‘I read a book about that once. What was it called again?’ and then I never find out, because chances are it was a library book, so looking at my shelves is no help.

    1. I can see that would be useful! I was trying to remember last week what an amazing book I’d read a year or two ago by someone who’d worked extensively in overseas aid was called, because I wanted to quote the author explaining why it’s hard to get funding for needle exchanges – she made a pithy remark along the lines of ‘There are no votes in doing nice things for bad people’ but I can’t remember the exact wording. I couldn’t remember the title or the author and a database like that would have been really helpful.

      (And I’ve just remembered that it was The Wisdom Of Whores by Elizabeth Pisani – it would have been handy if my brain had spat that little nugget up last week)

  4. There are surprisingly few books with characters named Lady Rosalind (or even just Rosalind), given that it is obviously the best name. So I am very excited to find out that you have one in your books and I shall recommend them even more wholeheartedly as a result.

    I once did a Word auto-summary of a Marlow fic I’d written. I think it was something like:
    Nicola thought.
    Nicola said.
    Nicola thought.
    Patrick? said Nicola.
    Which was not an unfair summary of the story, in fact.

    1. Sadly the auto-summary seems to be one of the things they got rid of in Word 2010, along with any possibility of finding the feature you’re looking for on the first try. Though to do Word 2010 justice, it doesn’t seem to have Word 97’s infernal trick of turning on markup all on its own but only revealing the markup once you’ve already emailed out a document full of ugly red cut and paste.

      I am still boggled that the assumption that all characters with the same name are all the same character would show up on a website about books, of all places. Maybe the coders are inveterate non-readers. Or they think that the various Lady Rosalinds are all the same woman, who has an exciting life and recurrent amnesia.

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