Again a Still, Small Voice
by Sarah A. Hoyt
Cross-posted from According to Hoyt
A year and a half ago I blogged about Lloyd Biggle Jr.’s novel, The Still Small Voice of Trumpets.
I’ll confess I was not perfectly straight forward with you, when I did that. If I remember, I wrote from the perspective of a reader, and how happy I would be to see the writers who had vanished, how happy to rediscover them. But I couldn’t close that circuit and make that connection.
I couldn’t do that because at the time I was still agented. I was still not writing for indie. I did not know if I could be or would be at any time. And this imposed certain controls on my tongue.
For those of you who have never read Biggle’s The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets, some spoilers follow. I’ll just say that despite the spoilers, despite knowing how it will turn out, you should still read it. It’s one of the classic space operas that is near and dear to my heart.
First, to give you space if you wish to read no further because of spoilers, let me tell you that the proximate cause for this post is a comment by Robin Munn about how, due to the horrible contracts houses are now forcing many writers to sign, until publishing collapses and something else rises phoenix-like from the ashes, many writers are going to disappear for ten years or so. (It’s in reply to this post.)
My answer said something like “yes, but writers have been disappearing randomly, strangely, for fifteen or more years now.”
I’ve talked about this elsewhere, and I won’t go into the mechanisms. If you wish to read my old post He Beats Me But He’s My Publisher, go for it. If you don’t – and I’m not the first person to describe this mechanism. Dean Wesley Smith and Kris Rusch have described at least parts of it – I’ll give you a quick summary. At the end of the eighties, sometime, while I was laboring largely in vain to break in, the publishing landscape underwent a marked transformation.
It was mostly a revolution in retail. I remembered reading at the time about the bright future ahead, now chains were displacing indie bookstores, and how there would be more books and cheaper for the public.
This was true to an extent. I was very happy when a Borders opened here in town, because it had a much bigger selection than anyone else, and I could go out and buy anything, even late at night…
Except the book trade is a specialized trade. If the people who were running, managing, distributing, etc, had been readers, true book people and/or if the publishing industry hadn’t itself gone through a convulsion of mergers and buy outs that left management quite removed from the day to day business of publishing… or had most publishers the most rudimentary understanding of economics, the chain bookstores would have been a very good thing.
If ifs an’ ans were posts and pans no one would ever be hungry.
However, the conjunction of book retail being treated as just any other retail “by the numbers” and of the publishing houses having clue zero why it would be a bad idea to control the numbers from the inside out… was a very bad thing.
Sorry, I’m so used to the situation that I just realized I might need to unpack it further, for you. See, to some extent, publishers always had some control over how much “push” a book got. To an extent. The book reps – the people who went door to door, bookstore to bookstore, drugstore to drugstore, everywhere that stocked books saying “hey, you want to stock this because” – tended to be (I think, this was before I was in the industry) readers. But they also got marching orders – of course – from the publisher. If told “We’re pushing this book to be big” they’d go out and lean on the stores to stock a lot. Did it work? Eh. Sometimes. And sometimes, no matter how much they pushed, the retail managers, who back then were by and large readers, would read the book and go “Joe, this is a stinker. It won’t move.” And sometimes the reverse happened to. You had “surprise bestsellers.” A book that was slated to go down into obscurity would catch the fancy of retailers, and they would hand sell it. It would reprint, and reprint, and reprint.
That was before retail became consolidated into three big chains and before Borders brought its innovation of “computer numbers” and “ordering to the net” to the business. Ordering to the net is ordering to the last “net sold” number of books by that author… No matter the genre, the subgenre or the author’s growth. (And let me tell you right away that there is no writer – not even Heinlein or Pratchett (genuflect) who never wrote a stinker. And there are few writers so bad – one or two – who never wrote a book I like.) Or… what was on the cover. Or…
What the “computer numbers” system was supposed to do was streamline ordering and give the retailer a real basis for re-ordering. What it did was provide cover and allow both retailer and publisher to play the numbers. Let me put it this way – if you had only two books on the shelves per store your chances of selling more than half were almost none. Your chances of reprint were less than that. And your writing name would have to be changed within three books. The alternative was you gave up writing and retired in disgust.
BUT the publisher didn’t have to think about “did we use the right cover?” or “If we bought it, how come it didn’t sell at all” or even “Should we have pushed more.” No. They could say “the numbers were bad” and cut the author off. It was ALWAYS the author’s fault. Even when the book didn’t even make it to the shelves.
This is what made me think of The Still Small Voice Of Trumpets. In the book – spoiler warning! – our hero finds himself in a world of people with a mad appreciation for the beautiful. The most valued art form is music and the type of music is the harp. The world is ruled by a mad king who periodically – for no reason anyone can divine – has an harpist mutilated by having an arm cut off.
This makes it impossible for the harpist to play again and though the harpist might have been very popular, it effectively erases them from public view and public consciousness. They disappear into the villages of the one-armed men, where they are in fact untouchable and “dead” to their fans.
In the interest of fomenting revolution, our hero invents a trumpet that can be played with only one hand and teaches the one-armed men to play. In one of the most moving scenes of the book, the one-armed men march into the capital, playing their music and all their former fans, suddenly, remember them and realize how unjust their condemnation was. Which starts the revolution.
When I wrote that first post, a year and a half ago, I was thinking how much traditional publishing was like that mad king. I know of an author who sold very well and had the door slammed on her face because… she dumped her agent – one of the big names in NYC. I know of authors who gave up in despair after two or three series died without their being able to do anything. I know of authors who never got started, because they saw how their “older” (in the field) friends and mentors were treated. And I know of authors who suddenly wouldn’t be bought and never found out why. The wrong word at a party; the wrong blog post; the wrong expression when a political joke was told… And it all came tumbling down, and you were banished from publication and from the shelves. And your fans forgot you.
(In here, because the commenters asked before, I should say that it’s an open secret in the business that if you’re writing for Baen “you’ll be okay” – partly because Baen is in many ways a family enterprise, and not run strictly by bean counters. OTOH when, like me, you like to write many different genres, it’s rather a lot to ask Baen to start a mystery line just to keep you happy. So at least one of my pen names – Sarah D’Almeida – was sent off to the village of one armed men.)
If you’re like I used to be, before entering the business, you just went “Well, I guess so and so lost interest in the series; stopped writing; retired.” If we were still writing – in other genres/under other names – we HAD to abet the deception. In the interest of continuing to be published – not angering the mad king – we lied to you. We said “Oh, I hated that series. I’m much happier with this one.” We said “Oh, that just never went anywhere. I didn’t know what the next book would be.” We said “We always just wanted to be myster/fantasy/romance writers, so we crossed over.” And what the heck could you do but believe us?
But now we have our trumpets. Indie publishing allows us to bring back dead pen names; to start writing again; to start writing at last. We’re no longer dead and gone, banished to the unseen villages of one-armed men.
We are, more and more, marching into the capital, playing our trumpets. Our fans are remembering us.
In the revolution that follows, a lot of mad kings will be deposed. I agree with Robin that what emerges will be completely different. I’d like to believe that as at the end of a fairytale the good are rewarded and the bad punished.
It’s more likely to be like the ending of Romeo and Juliet: “All are punished.”
Rough waters are ahead. Revolutions are always hard. But I think in the end, the system will be a little less closed, a little less insane, and a lot fairer.
Listen. Can you hear it? The sound of indie publishing is the Still Small Voice of Trumpets. And they’re ringing freedom.