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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.

26 Comments
  1. Martin L. Shoemaker #

    Maybe because I’m that kind of reader, I’m largely that kind of writer as well. I call my story style Blue Collar Space: stories of men and women working hard to solve problems and survives they push forward into the future. I also call it Nuts-n-Bolts, because I want the reader to see every nut and bolt on the spacecraft.

    June 10, 2013
    • And then you have Ms Author, who thinks nuts are part of her vegan diet, and bolt is what baddies do from her magico-gun that shoots… rays, yes rays (because that’s science fiction, see), Who has no idea what a spanner actually is… and think nannybots (and she has no idea what nanometer is, or how you power these things or the physics or practicality of her ideas. It’s magic, but she calls it science) will make sure the toilet flushes, and the engine of the spaceship (which seems remarkably like a Toyota Prius in the mental image she draws) runs smoothly… and then denounces as the fault of nasty troglodytic sexists that her book doesn’t sell.

      June 10, 2013
      • No, no, no, Dave. Nannybots are what the spaceship captain leaves her children with so she can go off and save the universe.

        June 10, 2013
        • silly me. Actually I thought the children were trotted occassionally downstairs in the spaceship to be shown off to be model cute children, before being whisked away upstairs by theose mysterious forces which are not dwelt on in this book, before Ms Spaceship captain fights off the bad men pirates pirates in a universe that seems to be a bit like driving around suburbia…

          June 10, 2013
          • You forgot one thing. The nannybots whisk them upstairs to where they are then beamed to the alternate dimension where women rule, all is peaceful and happy and that way Mommy Ms. Spaceship captain can deal with the evil male influences in this dimension until they realize the error of their ways.

            Oh gawd, just writing that made me sick to my stomach. I need to find me some good sf or fantasy to read. WHEN is your next book coming out?

            June 10, 2013
            • Good heavens. I’m already ill. I didn’t need this, Amanda.
              And anyone who thinks a world ruled by women would be peaceful and harmonious doesn’t belong to SFWA

              June 10, 2013
              • ROFL! How true. But they would say it was because of the men. Hmm. when I was just out of school, before uni and the army I worked as clerk for three months – the office had a wall of filing stacks – to just under roof height, seperating me and a couple of others from the entirely female section of twenty or so on the other side. You couldn’t help but hear the eternal catfight going on there. Peace and harmony it was not. I gather from female friends that this is not unusual in all-female spaces.

                June 11, 2013
            • Next year sometime unless I do an indy before that. Could happen.

              June 11, 2013
      • Repeat after me: You can’t write what you don’t read. You REALLY can’t write what you WON’T read.

        June 10, 2013
        • Amen. It’s sadly a message that just hasn’t got through. There is a vast belief that ‘I watched Starwars’ or ‘I have a glittery hoo-ha’ (thanks Kate for that image…) means it is un-necessesary. You can be brilliant without the homework or need to engage with the world or world-view of that kind of reader. It doesn’t work. And then the readers are stupid sexists… so why do they like Cherryh or Bujold? (clue-bat. Both read a lot of ‘older’ sf, in their formative years.)

          June 11, 2013
  2. Edward Bear #

    This essay reminds me of why I haven’t paid attention to the Nebula awards in years. The SFWA crowd seem to be heavily lit’rary in their outlook as to what is or is not worthy of attention. End result for me is that Nebula winners are books to avoid rather than seek out. Meanwhile, of the eight stories by seven authors that have changed my worldview, four of them were published by Baen. Bujold’s “Ethan of Athos”, Flint and Drake’s “In the Heart of Darkness”, John Ringo’s awesome short story “Earth’s First Improved Chimp Gets A Job As A Janitor”, and L. Neil Smith’s “Forge of the Elders.” Not too shabby a record for stuff SFWA sneers at.

    June 10, 2013
    • Historically, a lot of sf authors were practical and had backgrounds in practical things. Now you do find PhD’s there, sometimes, but not PhD’s who fix their own car. As for SFWA and the awards system in general – they’ve lost the plot. For an award to have any real value and credibility, it has to bring to the attention of readers books they enjoy and think ‘wow, A Polyplonk award means I must buy the award winners’ – fail that once and your value dips. Fail three times and your award becomes a meaningless backslap for your chums.

      June 10, 2013
  3. I’ve also had a preference for the Nuts-n-Bolts sci-fi but don’t really find a lot around these days. Most have too much social commentary and not enough gee-wiz that’s cool hardware stuff that I grew up on.

    Does anyone have any recommendation for harder types of sci-fi.

    Also how does one get information about a market for harder sci-fi.

    June 10, 2013
    • If you find some, tell us all. I think it is extinct. Some Military sf still swings that way. market? now there is an interesting question, to which I don’t have a short, easy answer. Baen are still best, but there is an indy market.

      June 10, 2013
    • Kirk Reiser #

      One of my favourite hard sf authors in the past few years has been
      James P. Hogan. Unfortunately he died a couple years back and I
      haven’t found anyone else to take his place. He was a Baen author
      though so you’ll find just about all his material on the Baen site.

      June 10, 2013
    • scott2harrison #

      Anything by Robert Forward. He writes the hardest of the hard SF with an excellent understanding of physics.

      June 10, 2013
  4. Just in case you haven’t been there: http://www.baen.com/
    Scroll to the bottom and click on the Free Library. You’ll find plenty.

    If you’re writing hard SF, Baen or go Indie. And Baen accepts unsolicited manuscripts, but, well I haven’t checked, but the backlog of manuscripts used to be humongous, the wait, a year, if not longer.

    June 10, 2013
    • Martin L. Shoemaker #

      For short fiction, I still find Analog very open to hard SF.

      Martin L. Shoemaker

      June 10, 2013
    • Laura M #

      I heard back in just a little over six months. It was a surprise, because the website warns you that it will be a year and a half.

      June 11, 2013
  5. I too resolve to work only for one master: the readers. Which is why some older stuff is getting revised.

    June 10, 2013
  6. I think the problem is that at some point the editors in the big houses all came from liberal arts backgrounds. They don’t DO greasy stuff or understand it enought to judge whether or not it’s good or not. So they don;t buy greasy oily machine stuff anymore. Even steampunk has mless steam and more punk in. I would realy love to see a regency that got out of the townhous and walked down the street to Muadsley’s or Bramah’s shop to play around with real magic that did, in fact, change the world.

    June 11, 2013
  7. Birthday girl #

    ” 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. ”

    Yes and some gals too. This is me. A 50-something female engineer (and other things). I built a Heathkit shortwave radio when I was a teen. Listened to it, too. Cyber-sf is OK in small doses. Mil-sf is OK in small doses. But old-fashioned, hard, explore-the-cosmos, sf is what floats my boat. You nailed the subculture.

    June 12, 2013
    • Yeah. I’m sure gals too. My little experience (Fisheries and Rock climbing particularly) says most people in the harder-to-do areas tend to be a lot more merit focussed, especially areas where you always need more people! If you’re interested, and good at it, well, we’ll have if you’re green and have three legs and think a beach-ball is sexy. If modern feminism has a war to fight in the west, it’s to get far more women to take those professions (without special quotas, resorting to groupwork or having to add in special questions about the feelings of resistors). And lo, those women will buy hard sf, and write it… and look down on arts graduates of any gender 🙂

      June 12, 2013

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