The Elephant of Surprise

“Why don’t you,” said the accountant looking at the books (account books) of the normal series of chaos and disaster, and very occasional black swans which is publishing, and the good money ascribed to that little subset ‘bestsellers’,  “just buy bestsellers?”

The editor sneered at him behind his hand while mumbling that it wasn’t quite as easy as that, and that that was what they tried to do.  And at least most of his sales predictions had been remarkably accurate. He knows what people want to read, and so he’s a key employee, in case any accountant is thinking of making anyone redundant.

If the accountant had known anything about books that were not a spreadsheet he would of course have known that a)the editor is cooking the books b)the editor has to cook the books because he neither the tools nor the specialized ability to use those tools to predict what books people want to buy reliably. Sometimes he can guess what he can sell better than other times, and sometimes he has more of a clue.  And a lot  of the time he cooks the books to hedge his bets, because the accountant hates him getting it wrong and he has not faintest idea.

But he can’t just buy best-sellers.

Because it would be easier and cheaper and more likely to buy antimatter, the way it is done now.

You see buying bestsellers at present relies on the possible pachyderm postulate. Now, this is more or less a tale for those authors trying to pick a direction and style for success. It’d be valuable for accountants to publishing houses and editors, and agents, and possibly even for agents ‘assisting in self publishing’.

So here is a little parable about the professional licensed hunter who had been out in the big bad jungle and been bitten by bugs and scratched by thorns, and got the runs from not boiling the water first, and had his campfire flattened by wildebeest, and his food nicked by monkeys.  As a result of these experiences he’s retreated to his safe home in New York, and decided he’s going hunt from safety. Of course no one else has a license so if they want game, they’ll have to buy it from him. His beaters will bring it to him!

There are a couple of downsides to this: there is not a lot of game in his patch of apartments, and he needs to sell his kill to pay the rent and to eat, and peering out of the keyhole he can’t really see what he’s shooting through the door at.  He hires beaters, but as he has squat to pay with, these tend to be local winos who will hold a cat to the  keyhole.  So he’s limping toward eviction, and has sold a few cats and pekinese carefully skinned, as finest venison.  But looking through the keyhole he sees gray.

Now the hunter once made good money shooting elephant. One bullet, lots of meat, ivory, elephant’s foot umbrella stands. And it was gray.

So from his keyhole, the hunter sees… gray.  He dances a jig, calls up Boggis and Fenci, Suppliers of Elephant guns to Royalty, and gets them to fly him a Holland and Holland – with gold inlays, and have a courier do a helicopter delivery through the roof, regardless of expense.

And he gives the grayness a 50 mm slug through the door and rushes out to start butchering his new fortune.  Because it was gray, it was probably a pachyderm, right?

And once in every 1 000 000 times it might even be. The rest of the time he’s obliged to hastily butcher the mailman in a once gray shirt with a final demand letter, and sell him as finest wild boar.  Or he’s shot a mouse on stilts peering in the keyhole. Or merely shot a gray day.

So: now you say ‘interpret for us this parable, oh master’. And I in my charming and irascible way say ‘fool-boy go fetch another bottle of wine.’

Soothed by wine I may explain… why not?  Once publishers roamed the world and some got rich, shooting elephant (or at least bestsellers which were the equivalent of elephant), and much other game because you can’t find elephants every day. They lived in tents (or offices ) which were cheap, and they sold meat and hides to anyone who’d pay, mostly quite cheaply too.  They had many customers, ordinary people. But it wasn’t very safe, and wasn’t very comfortable, and when you had good ivory or hides you could get a better price in the big city. So they they retreated on New York, and went out shooting more rarely, with lots of beaters and bearers and a cook, and what they got, they wanted top dollar for, so they lost their old markets as customers gave up eating game or hunted for the pot themselves.  Seeing this  publishers got even more hurt, and instead of going out and hunting again (or trawling slush) they locked themselves in their houses with the bearers and cooks and relied on freelance beaters, AKA agents,  who also lived in New York.  Now some of these agents were intrepid souls and went to great effort and expense to get whatever game possible back to NY, to the publisher’s locked door.  But as the publishers weren’t doing too well, getting a buck or even a horse or cow or a goat to the door was less rewarding than it used to be, and elephants were… rare.  Some of the beaters went hunting on their own… I believe they called it assisted suicide because they weren’t licensed as hunters… and the publisher went on peering through the keyhole shooting at possible pachyderms.  The keyhole is a severe limit on vision, which might equate to the way books are viewed prior to buying. You see they’re viewed through keyhole called ‘statistics’ which every publisher knows are absolutely defining. (Every statistician of course knows that the layman and a set of figures is slightly less clued up than the spinster aunt who works in a condom factory all her life, believing she’s making waterproof sleeping bags for white mice. ) The publisher looks at bookscan figures and sees… gray (a large number). Probably a  Pachyderm! Order the delux Holland and Holland.  The trouble is the gray can be all sorts of things. Artifacts. Artificial constructs. Mailmen. Even mice on stilts more plausibly than elephants.  Without coming out of the house, almost impossible to tell if they are elephants, and really in NY the gray is actually very unlikely to be that.  You see the hunter hasn’t bothered to figure there are a lot of other parameters besides ‘gray’ to make something probably a pachyderm. And until you establish things like its size (or how much was spent on it – if it was little that’s possibly a real pachyderm) if it has tusks (what sort of distribution it got – if it was poor and still did well it is almost certainly a pachyderm) whether it has a trunk (what sort of publicity it got – if it got none and still did well it was a vast tusker indeed)…

Otherwise… the hunter may find there is less meat on mailmen than his creditors demand, and the beaters… well, they may find cats wishing to be assisted in suicide less common.  And people might just get used to eating eggs (or e-books sold by authors) which do best when you look after the egg-layers.

Yes. I have finished and turned in CUTTLEFISH. How did you guess?

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “The Elephant of Surprise

  1. Dave, first off, congrats on finishing Cuttlefish. Can’t wait to read it.

    Second, you really should add spew warnings to your posts. This was wonderful. I bow before the master. Of course, the hunters you write about won’t recognize themselves. They’ll point to the pretty prose and and then wonder what it was really about. Because, not only are they hiding in their safe apartments, looking through the keyhole, I swear they are doing in from under their beds, with blankets over their heads.

  2. CKelsey

    There’s a “sense of humor” and then there’s whatever it is Dr. Monkey has (coconut funnies?). A terribly fun and rather ascerbic post, Dave. :)

  3. We have a huge shortage of business common sense and capitalistic humility (the virtual of selling what people want to buy, rather than what you want to sell). People know what to do in theory, but they tend to forget it when it is a pain to practice.

    Bankers forget that people and companies default and go bankrupt. Entertainment providers, such as publishers, forget they need to sell stuff that actually entertains.

    Any chance you’ll team up with Eric Flint to write a book of business parables? I’d suggest calling it Practical Capitalism 101, but that might be going too far.

    • Definitely like the business fables idea.

      I think Freers Fables of Business could run and run. And have lots and lots of benefits for Dave Freer as it could easilty be a once a week blog thing, then a book, then a major motion picture (with 1000 elephants)

  4. kali

    “. . . as he has squat to pay with, these tend to be local winos who will hold a cat to the keyhole.”

    Laughing hysterically and disturbing my coworkers mightily.

    errm, back to work for me. After I re-read the good bits.

  5. Kate Paulk

    Not to mention, sacrificial gray cats are getting kind of hard to find. And the local cat population has mastered the art of rolling in soot, crayon shavings, or anything else that will make them look not-gray.

    And they’re sitting on eggs. Just to mangle the metaphor a bit further.

    Congrats on turning in Cuttlefish!

  6. :-) Fables of Monkey business unfortunately requires meeting a tight deadline, and certain amount of red lubrication :-).

  7. Mike Barker

    How about A Bestiary? Now that’s a genre that hasn’t been around for a while. Freer’s Friendly Bestiary of Felonious Varmints? Something like that… :-)

  8. Congratulations on turning in Cuttlefish. I’m coming close on DSR. JUST entering changes now — the part I hate most. It’s boring. I want to make a million dollars and hire a secretary. Yeah. I know… Sigh.

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