I’m back. And with much relief 🙂 (thank you for obliging me last week, friends. All is well. Sometimes understanding probabilities is not fun.)
I thought I’d talk about that lurking monster in the black lagoon, one that seems to terrify so many people…
For no good reason, he’s just misunderstood. Actually they’re a bit of an old soppy, really.
Here. Come and meet him. He does bite but only if you do something silly like run away, or approach him without his favorite titbit, logic. Give him logic and Numbers will be your friend. (Unlike Leviticus, who will at best be your ally.)
It is of course possible to get numbers to lie, or at least allow yourself to be fooled by them, especially if you don’t understand them. Lies, damned Lies and Statistics…
Still, as writers, particularly of sf and particularly those of us venturing into independent publishing, they’re important. Some of this is slowly getting through to publishing It is not too long a leap of logic to say that those numbers tell another story too: Losing bookstores is a much bigger problem for publishers than it is for _writers_ too. Look, the publishers were the gatekeepers… not to being published – that could be got around – but to retail space. Without a publisher, and without one that could exert push to get lots of retail customer eyeballs an author was doomed, it didn’t matter if the book was good, bad, or even brilliant. In fact mediocre could do fairly well, except that this generated the probability of diminishing return customers. As probability has a lot to do with my friend numbers, let me dwell on these, just briefly. I’m sorry if I am boring you with something almost all of you know, but I’ve had my nose rubbed in the fact that most publishers, and it seems a fair number of the grandees of SFWA do not even begin to understand concepts like ‘probability’, ‘ratio’, or ‘average’, let alone ‘normal Gaussian distribution’ or ‘cohort analysis’. Probability is ‘the odds’ of something happening. ie if you have a ten sided dice for your wargame, and it is equally weighted and properly shaken and thrown, you’re going to throw a 1 one time out of ten. You have a 0.1 or 10% probability of throwing a 1, the next time you throw you still have 0.1 chance, not a 1 in 9 chance. It does not mean if you buy kippers it will not rain.
If you’re a reader… You’ve all been there… finished the last page of a book, checked there isn’t one hidden somewhere, and read the damned appendix because you’ve enjoyed it so much, and either gone back and started it again, or rushed off to try and find another in same series or by the same author. That’s a probability of 1(or 100%, or 10:10) that you’ll buy another book by the same author/in the same world. The probability that you’ll buy more books of the same genre/setting/ series could all be calculated. And this is important – all of those figures differ for every reader of that book. Some books will get a very high average, and if you plotted all the probabilities on a graph, you’d get the typical distribution curve – a big fat and wide one if almost everyone liked it, and a narrow skinny one if only a small sector of the population does. So: if the Book A has a lot of appeal (approaching 1 that they’d buy another) to 90% of men, regardless of their orientation, and 50% of women, it’s going to sell a lot and generate a lot more sales of other books. If you looked at the curve you’ve got a big tortoise helmet covering a lot. This curve is ideal, but very, very rare. Book B has a lot of appeal (approaching 1) to Communist vegetarian Latvian lesbians — it’s going to sell well to its niche, but will in general terms not generate the sales of many other books. If you look at its curve, it’s a thin tall porcupine spike in one place. Kind of obvious… but what seems to be missed is that if a read is so-so… say a probability of 0.45 that I’d buy a book by that author or in that genre… AND it has narrow appeal base… (a thin short spike in one place) you’ll kill that market quite quickly. ESPECIALLY if you’re putting books for Communist vegetarian Latvian lesbians which don’t have a very high ‘buy by same author/genre’ with a low probability that even the target audience will buy… into bookstores as the only choice. In other words putting a short thin soft porcupine spot on place and telling everyone it is a tortoise. This is what publishers have been doing for years, because they could. It has been steadily losing readers from the underserved parts of the distribution.
Part of this comes down to straight arrogance and command economy. Part of it is ‘inclusivity’ It has become very politically correct to confuse diversity/inclusivity with ‘representative’
The latter has considerable commercial value, and makes a lot sense. The former only makes sense in politics (ie. None, really). The latter generates, as a by-product, quite a degree of ‘diversity’. If you have a hundred possible customers, and 50 are male, only selling Y front underpants and boxers means you lose 50 customers for sure… Selling a range of underwear is your best option. It costs quite a lot switch your manufacturing to something else… so if you have to choose, and 4% of your customers like G-strings and the rest somewhat more ordinary nickers, if you decide to be diverse and have just as much invested in G-strings as everything else… you’re diverse. And broke. If you decide diverse means getting rid of the offensive-to-G-string-wearers Y front and boxer line to concentrate on the G-strings… you’re what seems to be the SFWA idea of ‘inclusive’. This has been a trend in traditional publishing (SFWA reflects the mainstream of that, which is why it is what it is) What does the monster numbers suggest your fate will be as a big flabby beast in the nasty world of commerce, with a few short, soft little spines in one spot, and maybe a few long thin ones, also in the same spot, running around shrilly yelling ‘I’m a tortoise, I’m a truly inclusive tortoise?’
It’s not pretty. Which is why indy is steadily eating large traditional publishing’s lunch, because they might have narrow appeal, but at least their porcupine spikes are all over the place, and they’re getting audiences that the ‘inclusive’ couldn’t reach, by being closer to ‘representative’. The end result, say some pundits is that those writers who have large web audiences will take over where publishers left off, once they lost the gatekeeper to retail space job.
And it is perfectly possible that Amazon will, once it has a lock on retail space, do what other large retailers have done once in that position, and screw suppliers and tell customers: “We only have size 11 left boots. Take it (at this inflated price) or leave it.”
Or not. The one thing Amazon, alone among the book retailers (and publishers) has done is to embrace numbers. The poor creature from the black lagoon has been much loved and is eagerly providing them with a lot of marketing data. We’re still at the early stages now, but I’ve seen a little of the sort of data-use that is getting used in commerce (and, interestingly, in Australian political planning) where they’re down to the street and house level of analysis. They know what the probabilities are on damn near everything. When they target a product at an area, they have a strong idea just how to target. You don’t write or read sf, if you don’t realize, probably a lot sooner than you think, the product recommendations you’ll be getting will be really well tailored to your tastes and likes – far more precisely than a recommendation by a popular blogger. And it won’t be reaching the popular blogger’s 5000, or 50 000. It’ll reach every person with a computer. And their likes are not alike. Reaching _all_ of your potential real hardcore fans is a lot more effective than reaching a bigger group of eyeballs which don’t all buy, and certainly don’t all love and put on their must-buy this author list. A narrow interest group but very tall probability spike (always buy the next Kate Paulk or Tom Kratman, and who knows, even the Communist Vegetarian Latvian Lesbian’s book) is probably enough to support a lot more authors than now
Maybe the advice that the great advisors to the publishing industry should be giving is that they need to learn to love Numbers. Not the Bookscan level GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) but the real McCoy. Find out what the market actually is and cater to giving it what it wants. But to do that, you can’t just guess. Or be PC and ‘inclusive’. They need to start collecting worthwhile data and get professionals to help you to understand it, and to target the customers. The thing is right now, that sort of targetting requires a lot of data input, a lot of analysis, and huge amount of computing power. Only a large organization could do it… now. But that too will change. I can see a targetting of product widget being available to writers in say… 20 years.
And that’s enough numbers for one day.