Everyone’s on the stage

And you’re the only one sitting in the stalls, watching?

Welcome to the author’s life. It’s only downhill from here. Serously, authors are by nature, observers — at least the good ones are. The ones who if they ain’t talking, they’re not listening, obviously aren’t, because we get tired of reading a monologue. However the stage seems to filling up. The question lurking at the back of all writers minds – particularly about e-books – is ‘is prose about to follow poetry?’, with more poets, it seems, than readers.

Certainly, I think, the e-book will see the un-naturally asymmetrical sales distribution flatten out. Yes, there will still be the outliers – the Pratchett, the Rowling, the Meyer, but the gap between newbie-midlist and ‘bestseller’ – which was largely an artifact created by publishers and distribution, will flatten out. So-called ‘best-sellers’– indistinguishable from noob or midlist work, barring having found favor, will sell much the same as the books they’re indistinguishable from.  Which will be a lot less than they’re used to. At the bottom… well the sales may be hard to find too. It’s likely that almost ALL authors will sell a little less, although firstly they should earn quite a bit more, and secondly, some authors hitherto ignored will do very well.

Why do I say this?: on an author’s list I follow this article about Hunger Games vs Sparkly Vampires was posted and elicited a range of we hate sparkly-vampire-it’s-so-sexist-and-gets-her-bishop-to-read-it-first reactions.

As usual, I saw things playing slightly differently on my stage. I tried reading the sparkly vamps, as homework. Didn’t like it much. But I was not reading to like it. I was reading to see why a zillion readers did like it, AGAINST the support and buy-in of the publishing establishment. And THAT is truly relevant thing about the Twilight books. Not that you hate them, or that that they have a passive heroine who is therefore a bad female role model etc etc etc etc… The important thing is that this was a book that is surprising, principally because it elicited that response from the writing establishment, and the critics (all of whom tend to parrot what their publishers and editors believe) and STILL succeeded. Now I assume it had a captive audience in Meyer’s community, eager to support it, and this gave it that initial boost that made it impossible for NY publishing and the distributors and book chains to give it the ‘support’ they normally give things they don’t like.  That, however, cannot have been more than seed capital. It was something (despite the virulence poured out onto it) that found a large audience, principally female and young.

Have they joined the LDS, rejected the principles that first wave feminists fought for?  Well, um. No. And the ones who read Hunger Games haven’t become archers either.  Nor, oddly, do the millions of 35+ year old women reading Romances abandon their partners to go and look for the dark handsome troubled Doctor…

This is one of those insane control-freak fears that has lead to nothing but the diminishing of the influence of publishing industry.  It’s escapism. Not role modelling! Not ‘educating the reader’. It usually has a character that the reader can identify with in some respect, either in their daydreams (ergo the beautiful young woman who is hyper-capable) or the person who is just like them (nothing very special).

And actually, the point is Twilight appealed not only as romantic (take it whatever way you like) wish-fulfillment escapism but also as a character many readers felt they could identify with.

And here lies my point: the authors who reflected NY worldview are probably going to see their market share shrink.  It’s why for example most genre sales have shrunk, but the ‘Christian and inspirational’ has grown. I’ve read some of these as homework too. Actually, quite a lot of it is fiction, and would pass for 1950’s romance, with a bit of religion. It’s comfortable, escapist, easy for a large audience of non NY publishing people to identify with.  It’s more or less what that audience wanted to read (with or without the religion) and couldn’t find elsewhere. (I see NY publishing has just bought into one of the big ‘Christian’ publishers – expect a rash of the same ‘educating the readership’ to come out and fail.)

But for those offering something that readers with different worldviews (and there are a number of them) can identify with, who have been badly UNDER-SERVED, may now find their audiences grow. If there is a message in this for writers (and indeed publishers and editors), it’s that you need to get off the stage and find who IS in the audience and what they want to read. There are gaps for everyone from Neo-Pagan Communists to Neo-Nazi Fascists, and everything between (although I suspect the former niche has been quite well served and may have to lose some writers).

But escapism is no longer a dirty word.

play on…

12 comments

  1. What I said over at Sarah’s place is the same thing, from a different point of view. To repríse:

    Don’t think “publishing”. It’s the wrong concept, and carries a lot of baggage that obscures the point. Think “product” and “customers”. You have a product, your writing. You want customers to buy it. Who are your potential customers?

    The publishing industry has used a lot of smoke and mirrors, with substantial success, to hide the reality that under that system what you had was two dozen or so potential customers — the editors. “Readers” were irrelevant. If a writer sold a book, it was because an editor bought it. They lived in one another’s pockets, they all had substantially similar taste and preferences, they all had favorites and sycophants, and they leveraged their position to enforce their prejudices and favor their buddies. And now —

    There are near enough seven billion people on the planet, and something like a fifth of them have Internet access. Instead of a handful of New Yorkers, you now have well over a billion potential customers — and not all of them, possibly not even a majority, share New Yorkers’ taste in reading material. Suppose only one in a thousand people might like your work. One in a thousand New York editors rounds to zero — no sale. One in a thousand people with Internet access is well over a million, a nice market for anybody.

    Christian fiction and sparkly vampires represent cases that went around the Establishment publishers by a different route. The Christian fiction business is much like that of general fiction in the fifties: there are lots of small Christian publishing houses, established because the legacy publishers didn’t serve that market. They have a lot of editors with different prejudices, so the advice often given to aspiring authors (if it’s rejected, send it somewhere else) worked there. Sparkly vampires (and Harry Potter) are a phenomenon resembling what the physicists call “tunneling”: they got through the barrier by energy and chance. Neither of them is really analogous to indie publishing powered by the Internet, but they’re powerful illustrations that the market of readers is much larger and more various than the market of Establishment editors.

    The concern about prose going the way of poetry, with at least one writer for every potential reader and thus a hyperdiluted market, is real but overblown. What there is no market for is the crap taught in every “literature” course, badly-formed short prose that’s “poetry” only because it’s oddly punctuated, capitalized, and laid out on the page. Poetry — verse that scans and rhymes and uses the sort of linguistic tricks found in Byron or Kipling — has a reliably lucrative market for the minority of people who can do it well, but under a different name: songwriting. Take it to Nashville, folks. The market for what a University Creative Writing course teaches as “literature” is equally tiny, but the market for good writing is big and getting bigger.

    Regards,
    Ric

    1. The issue – which I will believe will be solved in the medium term future – is linking that 1 in a 1000 customer with the writer. There is better chance now that can be served their book choice, but it’s still a very inadequate system. It will be solved.

      My own feeling about the hyperdilution – is that we’re in for a turbulent flood of attempts. given another 2-3 years… a lot of that will just go away. Writing a book, even badly, is hard work. Many of the badly written (and some not) will find the rewards poor, and just not do it again. Measures of quality will arise. And, while the offering will be much broader than historically, it’ll never again match the flood tide.

      As for the bit about pleasing NY editors – who all are de facto the products of a very narrow social niche… I’ve been saying that for years.

      1. Linkage . . . I’ve wondered if every time I order a “name” from Amazon.com, I bought another copy of one of my own, it might help with getting onto more “People who read this also read” lists. Or, of course, one of yours or Sarah’s or Kate’s or . . . if the “fit” is better.

  2. C. S. Lewis report on a conversation between him and (I think) Tolkien about charges of “escapism”. One comment went something like “who’s more concerned about people escaping with the answer of jailers”.

    IE people who read escapism are escaping from what would-be-jailers.

  3. Great post, Dave! And I’m really looking forward to being able to buy a lot more of your books and stories!

    I read all the Twilight books — because my daughter was reading and enjoying them (same for Harry Potter, btw, but that was *both* kids). What I saw was a nicely thought out universe, with consistent interior “rules” — and romantic love that did *not* involve sex ten seconds after meeting someone with whom the character shared a mutual attraction. This “oh, you smell good! Take off your clothes and let me do you” isn’t so much *expected* any more, IMHO, as it is *required*. Kids (by which I mean anybody under the age of 30 who isn’t married — I’m a bit of a weirdo when it comes to sexuality) are being told at every turning that sex *has* to be part of their lives, that there can be *no* romantic reason for it, and no possible reason against it. Then people wonder why the age of first marriage is rising, along with the divorce rate. Twilight, think about it, took several books to get to the sex, and then it was after marriage. Amazing! I’ve picked up books where it didn’t take more than a paragraph!

    Yes, the Twilight books are easy to make fun of. But, underneath, there is a certain “retain innocence until you’re ready” message that I found to be quite healthy. How many people complain about “sparkly vampires” who have never read the books? I’ve heard over and over that the mark of a good author when it comes to fantasy (or other SF) world building is that the rules and laws are consistent. Meyers has done this as well if not better than a great many of her would-be detractors. She also blew a resounding raspberry at the whole “feminism means women should be ready for sex at the drop of a hat and never think twice about it” group-think that seems to have taken over so many areas of life and fiction. And I think *that* may be what got her ridiculed by the people who read her books, and then their sycophants picked up the chant “no sparkly vampires” without even addressing the underlying ‘sacrilege’ that she’d committed.

    As is always the case, the people who point out a fallacy, especially if they may be right, cannot be allowed to continue.

    And now the gate keepers are gone. It’s going to be a *very* interesting ride, indeed!

    1. The market out there is large and complex Lin. It’s not really one market but more like many niche markets, that you can show your product to all of. I think the mores and values of large sections of it have been ignored for a very long time. I seriously don’t think that most of the establishment have any real idea (or care) how out of step with the many markets they are. They’re still making “la la la la” noises as their sales fall through the floor.

  4. I think it’s more a matter of the actors having escaped the stage and gone ramaging through the audience, a solid percent of whom are ad libbing like mad, trying to be part of the “New Indie style play.” Some are good, some are bad, and a few are so good the directors are trying to pull them up on stage.

    We writers are also readers, and we read a lot faster than it takes to write a story at any length. We’ll never run out of readers.

  5. A few things
    a) you’re underestimating the boost of the LDS community, particularly as it pertains to finding “vampires” they can let their daughters read, thereby keeping them off the “hard” stuff like Hamilton.
    b) She did get publicity upfront, regardless of the disgust of the establishment. She got TONS of push in the US, at least. I don’t remember exactly — eh — but if you poke in her background she had publishing “connections.” (Which actually explains her being published at all given the content.)
    c) OTOH Twilight, from what I saw is what I call “sickish young adolescent female dream” including the magical pregnancy. It links very deeply with young girls’ fantasies which are less about sex than about the protector, the powerful male and babies. (I know this because I WAS a young teen girl and went to an all girls’ school.) Given how few of those make it to the public, because of aforementioned gatekeepers and establishment, one that was that attuned to those “dreams’ and got in WOULD go massive.

    On a completely unrelated note, your view of how many people are jumping into self publishing is severely distorted. Look, I had trouble believing this too when DWS told me this, but I’ve since come to the conclusion he’s right. To us it feels like everyone, because that’s the community we’re plugged into: everyone is trying it or thinking about it.

    a) most published authors are not even trying this, yet. They might never. You aren’t in the US, you don’t know how difficult it was for people then our age and older to leave their typewriters for the word processor. Or what a technological maven I — tech-illiterate though I am — am. Or how attached to prestige the community is and therefore how unwilling to let go of the Gatekeeper Seal Of Approval. I think the Earth and the Sky shall pass away, etc. b) Newby writers might publish one or two things, but when they don’t sell like crazy, only the TRULY driven persist. Kind of like slush piles were full of “this is my short story. It took me ten years to write.” And even those who persist will be hobbyists, who can put 8 to ten hours a day behind it. Having been there, trust me, often a short story a year was all that happened. There will, I grant you, be a lot of poets. One of the signs of the apocalypse, I think. c) at least while English-speaking culture is dominant, which might well be the rest of our lives or more (EVEN if we’re in the decline they talk about, French culture took how many centuries to fade after the decline. It’s still dominant in a lot of the world and NOT just its former colonies) even if every even vaguely competent/capable of attracting readers jumps in the pool, the audience STILL dwarfs us. d) Kris R, like you, says the bestsellers will be the ones in worst trouble.

    1. Yes, Sarah. I had some idea of the LDS effect, and some idea of the adolescent girl fantasy thing. I do know a lot of readers who do fit either profile who were devouring it — which makes my point, only the customer actually knows what they want.

      And yes. I think we will see a tide of attempts… and this will slow down.

  6. Just to add an observation or three – I’ve just got back from Philcon, which is at most 2 hours from NYC, and the absence of establishment publishing and agent names was quite remarkable. The authors with significant establishment careers who didn’t have significant online presence all had a certain edginess, a feeling of “celebrate and hope the disaster doesn’t come”.

    Meanwhile, those with online presence and savvy were doing things like giving out free sample chapters and clusters of them were taking dealer tables to sell hard-copy and goodies while giving out the freebie chapters. This is… very different from what I was seeing even two years ago.

    It’s looking to me as though the establishment is clinging desperately to their high ground while it gets eaten out from under them and they’re left with an ever-decreasing patch – and doing their best to keep their authors on that patch even as the lesser lights and midlisters slip away – and the never made its like me decide “hell no”.

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