To serve two masters
It does’t work. You don’t have to get biblical to prove this, you just have to have tried working under two bosses at the same time. This has happened to most of us somehere down the line, and we’ve all got horror stories about how difficult it was, and how it went wrong.
In traditional publishing your master was of course the acquiring editor, because without them, there was no book. You gave them what they wanted. If they were like Jim Baen or Toni Weisskopf and what they wanted was a story they could sell, well and good. Baen would — despite all the hurdles put in their way — not get the awards and praises they deserved, just sell more books. If they were one of the editors from another house, and what they wanted was pre-digested regurgitated PC-pap with lots of message to educate those readers, or preach to the converted who loved being re-assured that future was theirs, well and good too… You could have the standard villians, usual humans bad, usual utopia/dystopia (caused inevitably by the cardboard cut out approved villians whose wicked politics, skin color and gender and orientation, and possibly religion always makes them the ultimate evil.) You kissed up and praised the publisher’s views, the publisher would smile benevolently, awards would be bestowed and sycophantic reviewers in similar-minded magazines and review services would announce how stunningly original and unique this was, just like last time.
Which was all well and good IF the audience bought it, or if the publisher had the money to go on paying for it even if the revolting peasants didn’t love their pearls.
Times change. Publishing used to be a counter-cyclical industry, booming when times were tough (other historical examples are camping gear, vegetable seeds, beer, movies. If you have a more than room temperature IQ you can understand why). Books are cheaper than movies, and somewhat more re-usable than beer. And a good book was cheaper (and possibly warmer) than a camping holiday. Now, probably because many books don’t provide much escapism, there is no countercyclical uptick. People don’t trust books for feel-good factors any more, and this damage will take many years to fix. Also, the in the e-book field, Independents are eating their lunch. There just isn’t the size of market their was, and the dahlings just couldn’t all be carried, because if it was choice between the New York office and the non-selling but very editor-popular author… well, naturally the dahlings are being winnowed (probably according to the PC heirarchy they thought was for OTHER people). Some of them are turning to Indy themselves. Others are realising that they serve two masters and… have choose between them.
Those of us who have been in that position know pleasing one usually means peeving the other. The two masters are now their editor, and their readers, because they actually have to sell quite well or go, and their old master can’t ensure them much of an advantage any more. This is still possible where the two want the same thing (see Baen, or see the preaching a nice reassuring message to the converted.) There are chunks of fantasy and sf which are not that much affected… or wouldn’t be if the latter audience hadn’t been pretty saturated anyway. They had as many humans-evil men-bad books as they wanted. Of course those wicked villians have… well, we’ll blame them anyway, they’ve made us all poorer and lost some of us our jobs. So there are less buyers there too. Perhaps, some of the old customer base, now confronted with hardship, want books that make them feel they can lift themselves out of this misery too.
The story gets worse for the traditionally published hard sf author. Hard sf has failed to attract many female readers. It’s failed to attract new male ones in large numbers – except to the cubicle-geek cyberfuture chunk, and they are heavily male skewed, and don’t seem to read a lot else but Cyberpunkish stuff. To me it’s more fantasy than sf, let alone hard sf. Your milage may vary, and it certainly is attractive to a certain part of the population – but it’s also quite saturated… and, um, most of them are white males, and I do gather also getting a little sick of being the villians. Hard sf is still, it seems, mostly bought by the kind of guy who would buy Model Engineering… people who like a technical basis to their stories, who work in professions or have interests in making real stuff. Often hands on, oily stuff. Not all of them are engineers, but most of them would regard engineers as people to look up to, and, um, people who have arts backgrounds as people to look down on. I’m not trying to justify this, or excuse it. It’s just real. And so is the demographic of most of these people. They’re NOT exclusionary. In fact they tend to just love anyone from outside their normal demographic who shows a real interest. Trust me – if you’re a woman who wants a whole flock of adoring, solid, reliable guys interested in you… learn to make model steam engines. If you’re from China or India and you make model steam-engines, the model engineers will still think you a brother or a sister. Or take a serious interest in firearms – and you’ll find the same is true. Anyway: the demographic. They’re heavily skewed to male. They’re mostly over thirty (it takes a while to get to this level of interest and competance). I could be completely wrong, but I get the idea that heterosexual is the norm too. You’ll get some of every skin color, but in the US right now, given history and the importance different cultures attach to different educational directions, I’d guess the proportions will probably overshoot the US ‘white’ chunk a little – and that’s what? 80% anyway. They tend, from my experience, to be conservative in their religious, social and political views too. I don’t think they’re adverse to heroes (or authors) of different demographics, who share their interests and views. If you don’t and your heroes don’t, they aren’t going to buy your books, no matter what award it got, how unique it is (just like all the others) or how your publisher pushes it.
It is is a quite large chunk of people… very underserved as to books they enjoy. The old masters of publishing (who are largely arts graduates, and, um, seem to think oily hands are for other, lesser people) had designated them as villians, or at best, stupid. Funnily enough these readers don’t really want to buy those. It’s a huge unserved market, that is wide open to authors that are bright enough to realise they can serve that master. To the ones who still want loyally serve their old master, well, you better hope they learn, or get used to no longer getting published.
In future, you can only serve one master: the readers.