The Finity of Pie

This was inspired by some one of current sf establishment wondering if sf had run out of space…was exhausted.

One of the logical fallacies underlying publishing and its uncomfortable relationship with authors is ‘the pie is only so big. You can’t have any more.’

Not only does this start with the ‘we’ve decided who gets pie’ – which might be fine if they could say they got it right (and I say this as someone who probably has had them get it wrong… in my favor.), but it also has the sad effect of making authors — at least some of them, squabble among themselves about who gets pie at all, and how a big slice.

Also it is of course, crap. There is – at the moment anyway, a finite number of readers. That pool is only a tiny fragment of the pool of those who can read. And that pool is a fraction of the pool potential readers. Take Harry Porry… er Potter – even after movies and the vast publicity spend… 450 million sales in total, call it 65 million people per book. World population – 6.9 billion-ish. And lets be taking 4 readers per copy average (which is an overestimate as some people will have bought PB and HC – and not lent it out all) and that cancels out the library readers. But let’s be generous… 96 percent of humans have not read the bestselling book. Yes,the poor, the illiterate, the stupid, the people who don’t read kids books, etc. But single bestselling book reached about – let’s call it for ease of calculation at least 200 million readers, worldwide. That’s a call on the minimum size of the pool of readers (at least of a MG fantasy). Even if you assume that only 1/4 of those were English language sales, that’s 50 million… Which does make a bit of a joke of print runs of 5K. That’s oh… 0.01% coverage. Or 99.99 % unreachable. Or put another way, there is one book possibly available to every 10 000 proven readers. If you book happens be MG fantasy (and probably has a sell-through of 50%)… you got 1:20 000 chances to make that connection. That’s without getting to the ‘hard to mine’ reserves which are so vast that to the average writer, they may as well be infinite.

The issue of course is that we’re still massively inefficient at putting readers together with the writers that they’ll like. My own version of future prediction is that this will get steadily better, and sales numbers will drop for runaway bestsellers and rise for everyone else. We’re just too different to all love the same books. I can read HP, but I would barely cross the road to pick up a copy. I’d cross half a continent to pick up a new Pratchett. For others, this will be different again. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll start to mine those vast reserves locked away in other languages and illiteracy. I draw the line at stupidity. Hopefully I can leave appealing to stupid to others, and there is a line below which stupid is just too darn dumb to read. But maybe we can fix that one day too. Insert Bambolweeni microbrains or something.

It’s an argument, IMO, that translates well into almost everything else, and possibly better. I read ‘Peak’ this and at the rate we consume we’ll need another 2 earths etc… And think ‘just run this past me slowly again’? Take oil. “We’re at peak oil.”… Well no. We’re not. We may possibly be at peak easily recoverable by present methods cheap fossil (possibly-we don’t really know) known reserves of oil. But we’re a long way from out of the muck. And even if we were… We can produce it in the lab, we can get it out of microbes and algae. And that’s with what we know now. In 300 years time they may look at us like we do at spermaceti candles, and ask just why we bothered.

And that’s without getting adventurous and fetching it from the hydrocarbon lakes on Titan.

I can see the relays clicking over in your heads. “That’s rich coming from you! You’re an arch-conservationist. You even recycle toilet paper.”

That’s actually moderately inaccurate, and I barely ever have toilet paper on the washing line. I choose to live a life with a high level of self-sufficiency. Part of that is desire, part of it necessity (I still derive most of my income from commercial publishing, and don’t sell enough copies of Bolg
to tell them to depart for places unknown), and part of it genetics, and part of is nurture. I’ve never seen the need to be prodigal with anything, and excessive consumption — especially conspicuous consumption — for the sake of consumption always struck me as being being so mind-blowingly stupid and wasteful that I don’t need to go there. Yes. I know. That makes 95% of the human race stupid and wasteful, and the other 5% just have no chance to be. There are degrees in this, and I do it too. Moderation in all things, including the recycling of toilet paper – we consume, we want better and more, and we imitate. And yes, I do rate most of the so called upper echelon of society, our socialites, celebrities, business leaders and politicians as a bit dumb and rather inadequate because they need to do this. We haven’t really to evolved better new ways establish status in the super-tribes. Back in the natural size group of humans – pretty small, probably maxing out at around our ‘personal ID’ point of knowing individuals (IIRC that’s something like 120?) you knew who the good, the brave, the kind, the ones who fathered kids and never provided dinner for them, The ones who were funny, the ones whose cave-wall graffiti was really hilarious, the ones who always got meat, were. And that told us who we wanted follow, sleep with, and avoid were. Now, especially in huge aggregations of people we rely on the signs of these things, sometimes even to tell ourselves we’re the coolest etc. because we can buy a new Gucci wig, or at least that we’re not losers because we too have a new Gucci wig. Labels obsession is in my opinion the lowest form of this pack following. It’s the same root as the uniform and groupthink come from, and it’s not really for me. I like to think for myself and judge things and people on their merit, not their glitzy shoes. That is harder, but really it’s worth more their shoes.

I am a writer and naturally I see translate into my industry too. Harry Potter was at least in part merely a uniform. Yes, it wasn’t no fun to wear, had appealing characters, used themes (boarding school adventures/ magic) to things which have wide appeal especially to teens (unlike her latest offering which has, I gather a lot in common with a bowl of cold sick in the appeal stakes, but is very PC and very litterwherewee). But what we saw was – at least in part – driven by a desire to be ‘in’. Younger people (and a fair number of the less-than-young) are very uncertain about status and like to be the same as the everyone else (even if they’d rather read Star Wars or Diana Wynne Jones or 50 Spades of Grey) Still, I’m not knocking it, it got a lot of kids to read who thought it uncool before. But the point is while it got a lot of kids to read, it wasn’t the perfect match in all those cases. If it was, those kids would translate into a huge book-a-week pie of total book addicts. And those are just the smallest possible piece of the whole pie.

So there is my philosophy -part of what I try to slip into my books. It’s bigger than you can possibly use. And if you can use it to the point it’s noticeable… there is always something else.

We live in universe of infinite possibilities. All that’s holding us back is ourselves… and sometimes a bit of group-think. As writers we want to help each other up, not worry that others will take our place or that we’ve got to fit in.

Exhausted. ha. There is always more.
(cross posted on Coal Fired Cuttlefish)

30 thoughts on “The Finity of Pie

  1. In the high tech world, entrepreneurs often talk about “Total addressable market” (TAM) when trying to raise money from VCs and the like. TAMs are generally claimed to be $1Billion at the low end ( e.g. product sells for $999, need 1000001 customers) and go up from there. Now almost everyone recognizes that these $1Billion+ TAMs are a work of fiction and/or wishful thinking, but they aren’t always (e.g. antivirus @ $25/year for 100 Million Pcs) and even when they are quite often there’s a viable business with a (say) $100Million TAM that a company can get 50% of.

    Publishing just doesn’t get those sorts of numbers and seems scared to try and get to them. Consider that there are about 400 million people in the world whose first/primary language is English. The 7 Harry Potter books in total reached every one of them. But no other book has ever come close to that. Now clearly not everyone wants to read the same book and not everyone has the time/money/desire to read but print runs of 5000 are clearly not going to work and marketing budgets aimed at getting 50,000 people to read a “bestseller” are simply laughable.

    The publishing world (and even to some extent Amazon) are thinking WAAAY too small. What happens if a publisher (or Amazon) gives away 5 ebooks for free on every smartphone sold for the next year in the English speaking world? And at the bottom / end of every book there’s a link “for more great books like this visit ….”

    That offer goes out to perhaps 50 million people, if you get just 1% of them to buy another ebook that’s 500,000 sales. And if you sell the new books at $5 each, with 50% going to the author and 15% going to the carrier whose smartphone it is, the publisher is still coining $875,000. Authors might bitch about the 50% but if an individual author gets just 1% of those 500,0000 sales (i.e. 5000) he gets $2.50 * 5000 = $12,500 which is, as I understand it, at the high end of current genre midlist advances, and, assuming a reasonable backlist, he’s going to get a bunch of additional sales too.

    So far as I can tell no one has ever done that. Instead the free books you get when you buy a phone are either non-existent or out of copyright “classics”

    1. “Consider that there are about 400 million people in the world whose first/primary language is English. The 7 Harry Potter books in total reached every one of them. But no other book has ever come close to that.”

      First off your using numbers for all seven Harry Potter books, not just one. If your going to use numbers for all books written by an author, I would have to argue that there are several others that have reached or exceeded Rawlins. For example, in Louis L’amour books printed 15-20 years ago they were claiming “more than 300 million Louis L’amour’s in print”, since they are still one of the most common books seen on bookshelves in stores (your local supermarket/Walmart, not dedicated bookstores, although those carry plenty of them also) I imagine that number is considerably higher now.

      1. Oh I know I was cheating on the numbers. What I was trying to say is that the TAM is 400 million people but publishers don’t do anything that gets them anywhere close to that size of actual market.

        In fact rather than look at growing the pie (number of book readers) they just accept that only N% (where N is some small number) of English speakers read a book at all and try to sell stuff to that smaller number.

        In fact its worse – they try to sell more expensive stuff to a smaller market and then wonder why the market is shrinking.

        You can – short term – make more money by raising prices, cutting costs and “going upmarket” but you make the really big bucks by doing the opposite.

        1. “you can – short term – make more money by raising prices, cutting costs and “going upmarket” but you make the really big bucks by doing the opposite.”

  2. One of our greatest problems is a tendency to view thing relatively rather than absolutely. Proper greed is wanting to sell more. Improper greed is wanting to sell more than somebody else does.

    Of course, relative greed makes perfect sense when you’re competing for status symbols rather than real stuff.

      1. Another issue is the difference between personal greed and corporate greed. The decision makers in most companies don’t own a significant part of those companies – their interests are in short term share price growth, not long term revenue growth.

  3. “We’re just too different to all love the same books.”

    Many people buy the same books to fit in with groups to which they belong or want to join. The urge to fit in, which is especially strong among teenagers, partly explains the tremendous sales of the hideously bad Twilight books. The same motives explain why some mediocre movies (such as The Blair Witch Project) do well at the box office. The trick is to market to groups that expect their members to read _your_ books!

    1. Yes, unfortunately guessing the next hula hoop, dingbat, yo-yo is a gamble. It’s what publishers like to imagine they can do well, just like other punters.

    2. Sometimes you buy a Twilight book so you can talk to that cute girl in class. 🙂 Younger son tried that but couldn’t get past the first chapter.

        1. That’s how I met my husband. I was a reading a SciFi book before German class so he asked me out. His mom had to give him a bit of a push though. Is it too late for older son?

          1. oh, yeah. This was 10th grade. 🙂 Also, to be honest my status in SF as “published author” has proved a mixed blessing for the guys’ social life. Is the fan cozzying up because she likes kid? Or because she wants to be in with “author family.” This I think is why author’s children tend to marry each other.

  4. Odd that people would say sci-fi has run out of pie slices, but romance, historical fiction, and action/thriller writers seem to be baking ever increasing numbers of different flavors. And new bakeries keep springing up. Urban fantasy as a genre is how old – twenty years or so? Steampunk is perhaps ten years old as a recognized sub-set of fiction? And yet the “official” bakers dare to claim that we’re out of pies, cakes, tarts, and torts.

    1. I’m bringing back retro space opera single-handedly if need be. WATCH ME. (It’s just a touch of megalomania. I’ll take an aspirin and call back in the morning.) I’m gonna TRY anyway.

      1. 🙂 I beat you – not by writing it earlier but by getting it in print earlier. The Karres books are just that. Two asprin please.

      2. I have a Lieutenant Leary on the phone for you. He sounds really nice but I keep hearing him mutter to some woman in the background about a duel.

        1. Sigh. No. That’s Mil SF. Good Mil SF, but retro SF is something completely different. Think Simak or Heinlein absent Starship Troopers.

  5. I’m going to give a shorter version of this. The Establishment in SF publishing (Baen aside) believes…as do their Left Wing economic betters…that there is only a certain size of a pie to cut: No thoughts of putting another pie in the oven if Cousin Betty and her kids show up after all!

    Hence the burgeoning market in on line sales. If these dumbf***s would even bother to look there is a huge, and growing, on line demand. More then can explained by their internal analysis of shrinking sales. They are, for all intents and purposes, crying like the buggy whip maker to Henry Ford. One look no farther then my late friend, Ric Locke.

    Oh, and Sarah, if you use First Readers….Pick ME!

    1. Their version is either you like their flavor pie and the shape and size or no pie – for readers or writers. Pity only a very small section of the population like their pie. And as you pointed out to me Quilly, it’s a pie that can grow with the internet.

  6. I like your commodity analogy. How deep is the Earth’s crust? Somewhere between 5 and 30kms. How deep is the average open pit gold mine? Somewhere between 70m and 300m. We’ve hardly scratched the surface (pun intended).

    We can always find more. We just look deeper, and harder, and find new ways, new technologies, and think a little differently. Of course the cost of employing these new ideas, of drilling that little bit deeper…well…

    1. The question also is just what happens to those commodities… are they magically transmuted? Mostly no. I foresee, for instance genetically tailored earthworms accumulating metals. And various filter feeders in sea doing the same (Bullia for example accumulated cadium in concentrations way over natural availability)

    1. The US is no longer making new steel either, it is all recycled (but we import lots of new steel from China, because we need it but the enviros shut down the US plants).

      That is not a good sign, to be excited and proud of, it is a sign of a deteriorating society.

      1. Not necessarily. A lot of our economic progress might simply be happening in fields that don’t require so much steel. We seem to need more rare earth elements these days.

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