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Fear of the unknown

News of the day: I have author copies of

This proves it IS possible to get them before a book is released and not, necessarily, 3 months later if at all. And to the right address too. That’s the first time in about twenty. I hope it is a trend starting, not a fluke.

I’ve always been more curious about the unknown than afraid. Still, I accept the comfort of familiarity, and the idea that something nasty might be out there, beyond the circle of lamplight.

I’m of the kind who would go and look, because I’d infinitely rather find out what it was and deal with it than shiver in my little piece of known. The one thing you can absolutely guarantee is I would not stick my head in the ground and pretend that if I can’t see it, it can’t see me.

I would have guessed a relentless curiosity and anything but stick your head in the ground would be the defining trait of sf/fantasy writers. I would think, by definition almost, we’d be the one group of people who would want to know everything, even if it was nasty.

Now I belong a fairly large group of sf/fantasy writers. Someone sounded off about a problem they’d had on facebook in terms which were less than flattering about Christians, lumping them all into the right wing, and to my ear, implying such people were all racist homophobes. Well, everyone is entitled their opinions. And everyone is entitled to disagree with those. I might not agree with either side, but I’ll defend to the death your right to sound off about them, and I personally don’t care what religion, orientation, or skin color you have. I don’t even care where you sit politically. I might argue with you, but my own ‘politics’ come down to thinking about issues and making up my mind. I don’t let others do my thinking for me, which means I’ve never really sat in any camp and try to be reasonably tolerant about most viewpoints, especially in public. Actually, if anything cooks my goose it is intolerance. Back where I grew up this was called – and this may seem odd to modern Americans, but wouldn’t back in history – liberal thinking.

I’m, I suppose, a statistician of sorts. Fisheries science is about half biology and half really esoteric statistical modelling which is pretty close to fantasy really. So I tend to think of things in terms of probabilities and numbers.

Given a healthy society(or fish population), any reasonably sized subgroup in that society will more or less mirror the demographics of the group, unless there are major reasons why not. For instance if you sample all the fish in one large rock-pool it will contain most of same fish as in all rock pools on that coast (with some of the rare ones not being represented or found there but not typically) and, unless there is some good reason in roughly the same proportions.

Now, sometimes there are very good reasons why this is not so. Reasons that make sense. Reasons which are logical and understandable. And sometimes the proportions show there is a difference, and either there is no discernible reason, or the reason is just plain dumb, or is historical or no longer relevant, or is because you’re taking a snapshot at a point in time. Sometimes they show a real underlying problem that is fixable, or getting worse. One thing they don’t really do is any harm to individuals, unless those individuals benefit by the odd proportions being maintained. But for example, you’re a good doctor, and a Sikh, and the proportions of Sikh’s in the general population 2% and the proportion of Sikh doctors is 5%… well, the world needs good doctors, and obviously that culture encourages children in that direction. Every now and again the figures will show up something that bears thinking about. An obvious thing would be say the number of women on Company Boards. If it doesn’t remotely resemble the 50% that it should be by natural reflection, you need to take some thought to why not, and look at things like the historical numbers (let’s say it was 0, then 5 then 15… you could see it was changing with time and work out what is happening).

Without looking at the numbers, at the stats, and then working out why they are what they are, you will remain ignorant. Blind to all sorts of things. Opportunities. Problems. Dangers. Money.
Getting those numbers is a way of finding out what the unknown is. The point is, without some kind of survey and rigorous thinking statistical analysis… What’s out there is unknown. You may think you know, but really you’re guessing. And any guess that your subgroup does not reflect the overall demographic to some extent, is just dumb (unless you KNOW it doesn’t for some reason, and even then, you’re actually guessing aren’t you? Not logical. Not clever.)

So for instance, this group of readers will be self-selected and not really reflect the demographic make-up of the internet audience. But I’d be a lot stupider than I am to assume that this group would be a ‘safe’ place to badmouth for example ‘Hispanic’ people or ‘Same-sex couples’ without knowing the probability that they’re part of the audience. If I’d surveyed the audience and knew that my audience were abnormal demographically and I wanted that on my permanent record (which the internet is) and I wanted to, I could, if I was that daft and unpleasant and felt that way, do that. But otherwise… it would be a stupid thing to do.

And here is the point: we, the writers of sf/fantasy, should in broad terms more or less reflect the demographic make-up of our audience. I’m not suggesting, or even hinting that a writer has to be green and a practicer of the Ying-tong faith to write characters who are green Ying-tongers. Stupid idea. Completely off the wall stupid. But let’s be real here, if green Ying-tongers read, the probabilities show that 1: (A certain number of them), will want to write.

And if green Ying-tongers make up 10% of the population and read, and are of normal intelligence and education… and you have none being published, you have one of three situations. 1)They’re actually not reading. 2)They’re deliberately being excluded. 3)there is some other reason preventing them either reading or writing (if the group has a religious injunction against writing, or reading anything that is not the book of Ying-tong, or prayers to Ying and Tong for example. It’s big, obvious stuff. There is no space for subtlety here.)

Now you can break this up into genres, fiction, non-fiction, whatever. But it is very valuable to both the writers and particularly the publishers… if their goal is to sell as many books as possible. For authors, if taken at narrow, short term self-centered focus, there is less benefit… for example it tells you where there is a probable hole – and many of us fit multiple demographic ID’s, we’ve just chosen to focus on one. Say the author whose parents are Ying-tong and Atheist… who considers themselves neither really, but went along with mummy’s Atheism, but in looking at the demographic of Horror writers, finds Atheists are there in 50% – way above their representation in the population, there is some value in the author claiming his Ying-tong roots. The only other advantage, of course, to writers would be that sooner-or-later the fact that your group leaves out Ying-tongers or whatever, will come out. If it is Ying-tongers themselves who find this out, Ying-tong publishing will probably spring up, and it is likely they’d declare the rest of the industry bigots (rightly or wrongly) biased against the Ying-tong faith, and hurt the authors and their publishers. If the authors did the stats, or the publishers did, and started asking why their were no Ying-tonger writers, it’s pretty hard to hold it against them. It would be tried of course, but most people have good a BS meter. It’s admittedly of less short term value to authors than it is to publishers.

Taking a broader, longer term point of view, a society that loses part of its potential – be that as writers, or readers, or women being educated – is hamstringing itself. Sooner or later that is going make life worse for everyone, including those who were on the ‘winning’ demographic. For writers of course it’s a no-lose situation really. While they may be getting a few readers from chunks of the demographic that they don’t have anything in common with, they don’t have to lose that — it really means there is much bigger pie. And a bigger pie means a bigger industry, and you’re more likely to find enough readers to keep you afloat.

Yes: you might see publishing of other things – or authors who write say sparkly vampires from from LDS point of view – do very well. But those readers are not ones you’ve lost. They’re ones you probably never had, and may now get. But yes, people or cultures you don’t like might benefit. Or not.

Now I know I came from a odd subculture, that group ‘white’ South Africans who actually always opposed a system of government designed to favor them. Yes, they were always there, long before the ‘oppressed’ started organizing. Of course, to me, this is a noble, honorable thing to do. It’s the right thing to do. I am biased, yes. It runs parallel to the concept of ‘I disagree absolutely with what you want to say, but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it. It means if you see your worst enemy, that you dislike/ distrust/ hate with an ancestral hatred is getting a raw deal at your expense… you’ll try and give them a lift up, even if you can’t stand them and know their first act is going to be to spit at you, and try to get you down. You’ll still pick the bastards up, and stand clear. Which is pretty damn dumb too, I suppose. It has a long tradition, and was I’d guess it originally from ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ and has had centuries of history in western civilization. You might – if you were me – say it was one of the things that drives civilization forward.

Which brings me back, full circle, to the comments that started me thinking down this track… I thought, either the demographics of this group are totally out of whack with the demographics of the main reading population, or someone hasn’t thought about this. The chances are she’s offending a large chunk of those reading her comment… or not. So I suggested a strictly anonymous survey – run through something like Survey Monkey (which so long as you didn’t make the survey publicly accessible would give you a good handle on some basic data without cross referencing)- which would give us a handle on the demographics of a group that I though broadly representative of sf/fantasy writers. Ask the same demographic questions as the census and other generally available population stats (such as electoral data). Such a thing have to be 1)Anonymous, 2)be voluntary 3 )have a broad general buy-in, to be worth while. Look, whatever it showed I am a weird outlier – Flinders Island has a low probability of having an author of any description. So basically it’s of no short term ‘benefit’ to me. I was just curious, and naturally assumed in my profession, everyone is.

I was amazed and perplexed by the response. You’d have thought I suggested a baby-killing with a spot necrophiliac bestiality thrown in by the general stunned silence. Two people out of a couple of hundred thought it might possibly have some merit. Not enough to say ‘yeah we should do this’ but not ‘nay’. The most curious ones to me were those who said it would ‘divisive’. I was rather gobsmacked by this, as they’re – shall we say, not secretive about their own rather extreme religious, political, gender, orientation points of view – not in the group or in public. Outspoken would be more accurate. So… knowing who you spoke to would divide you from them? Making assumptions, which are almost certainly partially wrong is… better? I didn’t get this, but didn’t see any sense in arguing.

I tried briefly to argue the idea, but rapidly decided the cake wasn’t worth the candle, shrugged and walked away. It needed real buy-in, and I wasn’t getting it. I think people are needlessly suspicious about this sort of thing. I don’t understand why, unless you’re exploiting some kind of false perception. And it’s a waste of effort to do so: You can avoid it… briefly. But basically the internet is a vast data repository. If the traditionally published Sf/fantasy writers actually matter in 10 years time — someone will compile the stats. They’d be less accurate, but we’ll know how many are between 50-60 or 20-30. We’ll know their gender, we’ll know their orientation. We’ll know if they are religious, and if so, what religion. We’ll know if they ever supported a political point of view or party. We’ll know what race they feel they are and what country or state they come from. Short of staying in a hole, and posting manuscripts snail-mail, this is public domain data and data-mining tools are getting better and better. You simply cannot hide as a statistic, even if you succeed as an individual.

I thought it would be fascinating and tell us a lot about ourselves. I guess I was the only one. But in reality I suspect it won’t matter and won’t be worth doing, because let’s face it, self-publishing WILL be demographically representative of readers. And I suspect these folk will just be in a little area of that. Not divided, of course…

reposted Coal-Fired Cuttlefish.

23 Comments
  1. There’s a big difference between writing works that appeal to a specific group(say, teenage girls) and insulting will-never-read-my-stuffers (say, middle-aged men).

    Because you just said something Baaad! About Daddy, and Uncle Joe, and the BEST TEACHER EVER! at school. The reader doesn’t have to be one to know, respect and even love one. Or just dislike the hatred their fav writer just spouted.

    And any American who thinks all religious people are right-wing nut cases ought to contemplate Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

    July 9, 2012
    • Anyone who reaches the conclusion that you can lump a group of 76% of the population into a group which may represent 30-40% at least needs to go back to school and take basic mathematics. Anyone who assumes that in a group of 200, that the probability – given the national ratios (unless you’re at a Wiccan festival) is very high that some of your audience will be in 76%, and unless you’re at a communist party meeting some will be part of 30-40%.

      July 9, 2012
  2. The divisive comment goes directly to modern political thinking. I know nothing of the people who made those comments, but it seems to be the current trend in American politics at least. What is occurring is that both sides seem to think that their side is the only “correct” one and that the other side only disagrees to create problems.

    I’ve had a few disagreements with co-workers in the past who swore up and down that I was abrogating their right to freedom of speech by disagreeing with them. Never mind the fact that I have just as much right to express my opinion as they do. I disagreed, so I was being divisive and abrogating the rights of others.

    It’s a messed-up world we live in. I really see this type of message as a move toward totalitarianism, even if it is the totalitarianism of the population. People are attempting to control the thoughts of others by either forcing them to agree or negating their point of view. How long will it take for the government to formalize the rules? Your guess is as good as mine.

    July 9, 2012
    • My problem is that I don’t fit neatly into boxes, so even if I did agree on this, I probably wouldn’t on that. I like to make up my own mind. And I’m pretty sure neither side is correct.
      And exactly. The REAL test of these values is not how you accord them to people you like and agree with. You granted them that freedom. You heard them. That’s freedom of speech. They should grant same courtesy to others, or not expect it themselves.

      July 9, 2012
  3. Oh, and as to surveying readers . . . I wonder if Amazon Best sellers could work as a proxy? Eliminate the Breakaway million sellers as “everyone starts buying because it’s popular” and analyze the other books that stay in the top one hundred sellers for genre, sex of main character(s), general tone (optomistic or downer) and any other characteristic of interest.

    Umm, OK. just took a quick look through the current top 100 paid Kendle. (1) Shades of Grey and sequels. (2) Movie and TV associated stuff. (3) a fair selection of all genres. Romance in the lead.

    I’ll have to find the time to look at that last group in more detail. And check out the print top 100 sellers. Right now, all I can say is, sell your concept to Hollywood. Or switch to writing Romance.

    July 9, 2012
    • Matapam, no, not really. (I mean it is a good idea to so, but it isn’t a proxy, because there is no feedback loop.) If you looked at the writers of those top 100, and derived data from them it would be relevant.

      July 9, 2012
  4. I will point out that a lot of people have become very biased against such surveys and polls, because so often either the numbers, or the questions are manipulated to ‘prove’ what the pollster wants them to.

    Also if you compared it to the census, you probably got the instinctual reaction, very much like peoples reaction to the census. Which of course is that it is none of the governments business. To an extent I have that reaction myself, I don’t identify by race, and often refuse to do so on questionaires and such. Medical ones are obviously different, because it very well may be important, but the color of my skin does not affect my beliefs, and I resent those who claim it does as racist.

    All that being said, a survey such as you suggested would be interesting and informative. But, unless you made in compulsory (not a good idea) I suspect your results would be very heavily biased by the fact that the vast majority of those willing to do such a survey, would only be those who believed the results would be beneficial to themselves.

    July 9, 2012
    • Your points are all valid. All can however be addressed. If the data is strictly anonymous (and this is not hard), Raw data on any point available to anyone (so the researcher who sets out to prove a point better actually be right or they’ll damage the point) Questions structured professionally – so a null answer is possible. I agree issues like skin color or orientation do not necessarily shape beliefs (not if you’re not a sheep – and then it’s being a sheep that does, not the above). The point is that we’re using this as a proxy for something that would be hard and expensive to survey – readers. I think it would show some big gaps in the market. I have a feeling that some authors and publishers would rather not know.
      Buy-in in a small group of say several hundred would have to be good but is easy – once you get over a critical point – to encourage and to measure. You can say ‘we had 71% of all possible respondents. We’d like your views to be reflected too.’

      July 9, 2012
  5. TXRed #

    There’s a sometimes not-so-quiet battle in historical writing over who can or should write certain types of history. One vocal side believes that only members of [group name] should be writing about [group], because only they can understand the experiences of [group]. One odd result of this is that I attended an international conference where I was one of three woman who did NOT present on an aspect of “women’s history.” Apparently I missed the memo (again), because I’ve won awards for writing a history that has no women at all! They were not in political power in the time and place I studied, so they didn’t appear in my work.

    Back on topic, I wonder if people were “reluctant” to participate in a survey because they do not want to know who else might be writing? And perhaps they do not want to know that people different from them read their science fiction and fantasy? I mean, Heaven forfend that a pink and purple panda might enjoy discussing publishing problems and space travel with an orange lizard!

    July 9, 2012
    • The response – such as I got – was almost entirely ‘don’t WANT to know.

      July 9, 2012
  6. ppaulshoward #

    I wonder how many people “dislike” surveys because they know the Politically Correct answer but disagree with the Politically Correct answer and are afraid to be “on record” with their true opinions. Sure they’re told that their answer will be private (ie their names won’t be given out) but paranoia is wide spread.

    July 9, 2012
    • TXRed #

      My place of worship is conducting a survey like that and a number of people have said that they won’t participate because the questions seem rigged to make you feel guilty about not wanting to abandon traditional worship forms. If you do not give other politically correct answers, it asks you why. And the survey requires a name, so the administrator can ensure that everyone on the rolls answers. Supposedly the name and the answers are separated, but the paranoia is thick.

      July 9, 2012
    • I agree with you, but it is possible, especially with using the net, to do this in a way that really would challenge anyone to pin an ID on the respondents.

      July 9, 2012
      • ppaulshoward #

        Ah Dave, I’m sure it could be done but there are some that I’d distrust them saying that it was done. IE claiming that the answers can’t be connect with the names giving the answers but they were lying about that.

        July 9, 2012
  7. Eh gods, Dave. I can solve this riddle for you. Similar surveys have been taken recently among… university professors; mental health professionals, etc. They show a uniformity that is frankly terrifying. THAT is what your colleagues in this group are scared of. If it shows the same — and I BET it does — then it’s “divisive” because people they are deliberately holding out of the group will find out and be upset. This is a “shh, don’t tell the rubes.” (rolls eyes.) This rube KNOWS. I read what they produce and their mind-bogglingly echo-chamber posts.

    July 9, 2012
    • Well, that might be part of it, I agree. But what i suspect the loud shouters don’t want revealed is a bit more complex. They don’t want the probably quite reasonable proportion (although not demographically representative) who are say, Catholic, but keeping quiet about it, to know they are not the only one. They also don’t really want it shown that some groups are totally over-represented and others totally under represented. Yes, in some cases the under will be the officially designated kicking dogs of PC. But in some I suspect it will be groups who the PC-gods say should be favored (I suspect for instance that the group openly lesbian is about 5 times the male same sex group, and that the group with Spanish/Mexican roots is too, whereas female, white heterosexual is way over in the under 40, and way under in the over 50.)
      Part of this is you cannot demand advantages when you’re already privileged – and I think they suspect they are. The point is actually that there is a bigger pie, but they’re convinced wants their piece.

      July 9, 2012
      • well, belief in a finite pie is definitely a problem of publishing (though not just them.) It’s stupid, blinkered, but it’s taught in schools.

        What you said reminded me of my talking back to some old-school female authors (yes, I could name names, but I won’t) who were whinging over male oppression in my female writers’ group. I got must have been 100 messages of secret support from people you would NOT believe from what they write.

        I guess I’m old and cranky and tired of pretending.

        July 9, 2012
  8. In a fit of erudition a few years back I read the Platonic Dialogs. These consist of Socrates having a civil conversation with people who disagree with him. I was struck by the cordiality of the exchanges and I lament the impossibility of contemporary society to do the same. I suspect it is because Sophists have dominated society. With everyone cocooning it seems we’re doomed to be replaced by some other society that rediscovers civil discourse.

    July 10, 2012
  9. Synova #

    I got an e-mail from Amazon today suggesting Cuttlefish.

    Figured you’d want to know, Dave, that the impersonal wheels of data gathering are churning in your favor.

    July 10, 2012
    • Thank you! I like to know. 🙂

      July 10, 2012
    • I got one, too. The tentacles are flexing…

      July 11, 2012
      • I should have called the book Architeuthis 🙂 Bigger tentacles 🙂
        (I got one too which was quite amusing) – or maybe Mesonychoteuthis?

        July 11, 2012

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