Hubris


You know, them ancient Greek fellers knew a thing or two. (So I put in a picture of my Amazon link to book I wrote about their ‘knowledge’. )

Well, they knew everyone who wasn’t a fellow Greek was a barbarian. And they invented this stuff called democracy, which meant one man one vote, unless you were a woman or a slave… All right, all right. This was three thousand years ago, and both those ideas probably seemed way too clever back then. Things have changed a bit, not always as much as we like to imagine. Human nature hasn’t a lot, even if the framework of mores we operate in has. One of the recurring themes of the stories from those high and far off days, was that hubris came before the certain fall.

It’s curious how it seems to be recurring now. It probably never went away, but we’re seeing hitherto overweening demi-gods in their little kingdoms tumble and fall. And amazingly whether we speak of Dick Fuld or the CEO’s of the big three US automakers, or countless other examples, warnings that they stood on the brink were always there. And they almost always ignored them (the CEO of Ford appears to be one who didn’t – and surviving as a result). The GFC started in the banks – they were bailed out, and their leading executives… learned nothing. Looking at Bob Diamond’s fall from grace and the steady creep of criminal proceedings towards bankers (and likely, asset forfeiture) this too could be story set in ancient Greece, where the gods punished arrogant men (and a few women) for thinking they were too big and powerful and central to fail.

In our own little firmament, the book world, the bigger (and quite a lot of the littler) publishers had become tin gods, whose whims and fancies had long been life or death to authors, and not exactly the comfort zone for readers. But they could take it or leave it. They did not have to please either producers or consumers, as without the publishers writers and readers could not meet. They were nice to the big book chains, and cozy and comfortable in their little world, which was slowly eroding under their feet. Shrinking sales and needs for the essentials of life like a fat CEO salary and a large office in NY meant that they outsourced many of the parts of the business. When you own the keys to gates to the city of the read, there is no need to work at maintaining the road, or providing food or water or pissoirs for travelers, let alone cleaning them. Editing, proof reading… someone else can do that sh!t. And then along came the Internet, and with it e-books and Internet shopping… and suddenly the cozy little world of gate-keeping became one of watching the planes fly above the wall, and a bunch of writers ignoring the rutted track and flying in. Instead of cleaning up the track, putting up ‘welcome’ signs on the gates, putting up water fountains and nice clean bathrooms, firing the surly guards and investing in airports and planes of their own, we had ‘business-as-usual’, and a lot of bad-mouthing in sweet-heart or allied bits of media. As some wag put it, trying to Tinkerbell Amazon out of existence. And then colluding to try to raise the wall. I see they’re at both again. Judging by the comments, they’re not doing very well at Tinkerbell, and I’d guess their wall raising won’t work too well either. However maybe they hope John Scalzi will come riding to their rescue again. He doesn’t appear very worried that a lot of SFWA members might be losing money because B&N and a bunch of independents were taking actions that identical or worse than those that got a flurry of furious Amazon take-downs from the SFWA site. But it’s all different when it is big bad Amazon, eh?

However there DOES seem some real hope of hope of competition. It’s always a good thing, and let’s face it, the other ‘competitors’ – the big 6 as the embodiment of traditional publishing, have as yet to do any competing at all for readers or writers. All they wanted was the status quo restored, which meant building higher walls and making smaller gates and co-operating to keep that situation. They weren’t interested in roadwork, or even the sort of support Salon’s writer is so bitter about Amazon handing out – handouts they’ve made from long before they big or profitable. Apple showed its colors by choosing to ally with them. Google so far hasn’t done anything effective except roundly infuriate authors with its little out of copyright grab. B&N’s Pubit is distressing parochial and really not competing in meaningful ways – like making things better for authors or indeed, readers. It would be nice if this changed, but B&N seem still far too busy playing reindeer games with their old ‘friends’ in traditional publishing and their old paper business. Competition instead my be emerging from the ashes of Borders… In the shape of Kobo. I would have said – a little while back – that this was not terribly likely, but here it is: it turns out that while B&N are entirely US-centric, and Amazon has slowly been spreading into other places… The rest of the world has been fertile fallow ground, and Kobo has been growing and has a similar e-retailer (to the rest of Amazon’s business) involved.

This is cheerful news – as a quick look at the article will tell you, because they’re competing where it matters (at least to writers) and I have to agree with Iden, it will stop Amazon squeezing us, and keep them squeezing softer targets where there is less competition. It may even make Amazon’s offers to Indies sweeter and wider. It’s the kind of competition we could use. (B&N is offering less, Kobo… more).

Meanwhile, back at the ranch it would appear hubris continues unabated in the Antipodes, spreading to elsewhere. Now I’m always pleased when an author does well, and I haven’t seen the book, and it may really turn out brilliant and vastly popular. But that’s the third very large – around $1 000 000 new author deal I’ve head of since I’ve been here. All the books have been by young attractive appearing women (under 35, and probably under 30), all massively politically correct (I quote here from this one – “She was represented in unequivocal terms as a monster or a witch, the Lady Macbeth behind the murder, a very manipulative, scheming woman,” Kent said. “It didn’t take into consideration her experiences or the struggles that she probably suffered.”). Sounds like yet another miserable, man-bad / woman- victim story… What an un-guessable surprise that the traditional publishing establishment might fall over themselves to buy it, despite the dismal track record of sales of same. The other two – despite vast expenditure (for instance tours of Europe and the US to meet and dine with the book-store buyers) – largely vanished without a trace. Now this book may prove the winner that pays for all. May. But there are no metrics to prove this. Just gut feel and whim. To put it in automaker terms, it proves that the publishers are still flying to beg for money in their corporate jets, paying the CEO’s tens of millions, and have not read the writing on the wall at all. It’s still the strategy to gamble big, assuming that as you control access, you can influence the odds. In a world where a $4K advance is the norm… this is very big bet on something where the numbers do not exist, and the track record for getting ‘runaway best-seller’ even with all the push in the world, right, is not good. Assuming that in a normal book, it is costing them the $100 000 they claim to bring the book to market, that’s 11 bets they could have made. If you add the amount they’ll probably spend on publicity as being equal to the advance… 21. Taking a more realistic $20K (which is generous, but does not allow for the essentials of publishing. You know… not nonsense like editing, covers and proof-reading. We get freelancers to do that for a pittance. Important stuff) that’s 105 chances to get the market right, as opposed to 1. Or — taking the money and paying a reasonable advance — they’d have had enough money to update their accounting system, and pay monthly and compete with Amazon. Or set up a system which keeps track of sales properly and transparently and allow them to do some kind of proper statistical analysis to work out what and where they’re failing and succeeding in their marketing, which would make them competitive. Or to set up to sell off their own platforms… and that’s just the start of better uses for the money.
But no. We approve of the books so it will be good for you.
We shall see.

11 Comments

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11 responses to “Hubris

  1. We used to have some cultural safeguard about hubris. Now that we are in a period of transition (IMAO as big as the one from hunter-gatherer to agriculturalist) we’ve lost the old ones, and have not developed new ones yet.

    • Agreed. I think every culture had them – from the tower of Babel to Arachne. But the old stories are out of fashion now, and therefore we need new ones, even if the old ones are still accurate.

      • I don’t remember any of your major characters suffering from that particular fault. Maybe you need some, preferably that get beaten down and then rise up again.

  2. ppaulshoward

    “Who the gods would destroy, they first make mad”. Sounds like the big publishers are insane.

  3. TXRed

    The publishers remind me of the characters at the mad Hatter’s tea party, in the scene where they are trying to repair the watch. Alice protests that putting butter into the works won’t help, and either the Hatter or the Doormouse protests that, “but we’re using the best butter!” The Old Guard keep adding more very expensive, organic, non-pasteurized butter from free-range cows and wonder why nothing is ticking over. The publishers were also probably the kids who sat in the back of the room snickering at the wrong things in their cribbed notes about Oedipus during class discussion of the drama. Fixated on the sex and missed the main point of the work. Ditto Antigone.

    The concept of hubris is especially intriguing to me right now, because hubris is a major theme of my novel-in-progress.

    • LOL the fixated on sex and missing the main point seems too accurate. And hubris as a problem I think may easily fit into the zeitgeist of the next few years.

  4. I’m skeptical about her softening the story of this Agnes Magnusdottir character. For some reason, there are (compared to other cultures) a huge number of serial killer women who have come out of Scandinavia. Vigdis in Vinland with her axe is probably the most famous, and “Belle” Gunness is probably the worst of the 19th century. So maybe I’m stereotyping, but I’m thinking stone cold killer in this case, too.

    • The idea that women just can’t be nasty is very much part of the PC mythos. Every now and again I drag out the case which exemplifies this – where two lesbian women (one the child’s mother) tortured a small boy to death for refusing to call the new girlfriend ‘daddy’, in a manner that would have filled every newspaper front page in the west (as in the baby P case in the UK – to which this was very similar) had it been anything less PC-incorrect. As it was, it was barely reported at all, and hastily buried. Your gender, your orientation, your skin color… these do NOT stop you being one of the good guys… or one of the bad guys.
      But there is no way that she would have sold a book to the publishing establishment portraying the woman as something she could have been, a manipulative, stone cold killer.

      • Kate Paulk

        Speaking from experience here: women’s flavor of nasty is usually much worse than men’s. When a man hates you or wants you dead, he’s much more likely to be direct about it. Women are much more likely to smile and play nice to your face and stab you in the back in interesting and unpleasant ways.

        I’m not excluding myself from this, either, although I try not to indulge the tendency. At my worst, I’m quite capable of smiling and being friendly to someone while they destroy themselves, and never once revealing that I’m enjoying their fall. As I said, I try not to indulge it. And no-one here is on the (currently very small) list of enemies.