Cedar Sanderson

10 Points to Writers!

Cedar Sanderson
There are far more readers than there are authors writing.

Hear, O fellow authors, and consider this. Writing is not a competition. There is not a scarcity of readers, and although there has been for lo, these many years an artificial scarcity of of reading material, that drought is coming to an end with the Age of Indie. So why do we hear fearsome cries from certain throats, proclaiming that those who are elders in the field should step aside and let them in?

The young person who has been most noticed for this recently (although it is not a new lament), has apologized. “Shepherd apologised for upsetting writers and readers alike, explaining that she had “only ever meant to raise the issue of how hard it is for new writers to get noticed and how publishing is much more of a zero sum game than people often think” However, it remains that she thinks publishing is a zero sum game.

I had to look that up. I’d heard it before, of course, and from context knew more or less what it meant, but for the writing of this article, I needed to research, to make certain that what I was saying was accurate. So, here: “The theory of von Neumann and Morgenstern is most complete for the class of games called two-person zero-sum games, i.e. games with only two players in which one player wins what the other player loses.” However, this is palpably inaccurate when it comes to writing. There are far more than two players involved, and the success of one writer does not predicate the loss of another.

By the success of JK Rowling, there are more readers, rather, for us the authorial sort to lure into reading of our books. What we must do to win is not to shove aside those who have succeeded, demanding our turn in the game, but to write engaging books readers will not only read themselves, but recommend enthusiastically to others. You will note I have removed the publisher from this equation. At one time, there was a bottleneck, for the publisher can only afford to publish so many titles, and to promote so many (a fraction of those they do publish) authors. That bottleneck is breaking open, and as independent authors our reach is spreading. My books, published by the very small imprint that they are, can be ordered from any bookstore, and when I look online, they are available at least in webstores of the largest book retailers.

In order to win this game we play, it’s not the other writers we need to defeat, it is ourselves. For fear of rejection, for laziness in not wanting to promote and market one’s own book, for lack of confidence in getting the best cover and editing we can, we shoot ourselves in the foot, and do not succeed. I venture to say that the Shepherd person has not succeeded because of Rowling’s success, but her own shortcomings. Like a child in a game, she has pitched aside the board, and now pouts petulantly, blaming her loss not on her own lack of skill, but her opponent.

The readers are out there, I say again. Writers, if you can offer them a good product in the form of a story with meat on its bones, with engaging characters, well-constructed plot, and emotional appeal, you will win. If your story is not selling, or selling too slowly for your tastes, inspect the product you are offering, and ask yourself questions.

The oft-discussed post demanding “I want an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories.” is an excellent example of another writer who feels that it is failing in a field do to discrimination against itself. In this case, not by another writer, although certainly it seems to feel it is hard-done by those who view its views as odd. No, it wants more stories with its viewpoint in them. Lovely, dear. Go write them. If they sell, wonderful! If not, do not go around moaning that you are being discriminated against because you are an it/she/alienbeing. Again, that is not how the game is played. Appeal to the readers, and you have won. Make them yawn, or repel them, and you lose.

When I started mulling this post over in my head, waiting for it to gel and be ready, someone mentioned the calls for Stephen King to retire. I went to look as part of my research, and found that rather than calling for him to step aside and let other writers in, the cry seemed to be that his writing had gone downhill, and he should stop. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to have made a dent in Mr. King’s presence, as this took place over a decade ago, and I believe (I don’t personally read him, but as a librarian was very aware of how much shelf space he occupied, and how many requests we had for his books) that he has another book coming out this year. You see, no matter what the critics think, it is the readers who matter. They are the ones who buy the books, and that is what wins the game.

Readers win, with good books they want to read, and authors win, with sales. Publishers who care about giving the readers what they want (coffBaencoff) win, and publishers who care only about pushing their agenda (see blog address for ‘it’ above) lose. Zero sum? No, more like exponential growth, and I don’t see a limiting factor, yet… Want to feel like you are winning? write more!


  1. Brilliantly stated. We all, by writing stories people read, cause more people to read more. The total pot of available book money also encompasses beer, movie, overpriced coffee, and candy money. Save your readers from expensive dental work! Write another good book.

      1. Books of a certain quality can also be used multiple times as: table-leg extensions, shot-put warm-up weights, kindling (as long as you bought the book yourself [see local burn restrictions for current regulations]), aids in drywall demolition, birdcage liner, packing material, horrible warnings (if you don’t use spell-check properly, this may happen to you), door stops, plant risers, and for all sorts of other household uses! 😉

        1. The only book I would treat in that fashion was so bad it gave me the creeps just having it in the house. Straight into the garbage can!

        1. yeah, I hate that part. reach for your full cup of coffee and, , , hey, it’s cold, , , , how long ago did I . . . . . oh. . . .

      2. The best books you share with others, so they can get hooked on your latest drug, thus adding to the pool of addicts, making the pusher, I mean writer, more money!

  2. Well said, Miss Cedar. Readers are funny things- they don’t respond well to force (at all). You can’t catch them, restrain then, and tape their eyelids open, shove a book in front of them, and expect the magic to happen. Unless the magic is screaming, lawsuits, and threats of bodily harm, that is. Trying to shove message down their throats is like giving a cat a pill. It can be done, but only works if done very sneakily.

    Sure, there’s message in the books we like. But they’re not “message fiction,” because story comes first. People buy them and want to read them because there’s a delicious delight in seeing the bad guy get his comeuppance. Also in seeing virtues we hold dear held up proudly, not denigrated as old-fashioned and useless. Plus guns and spells and magic and monsters galore, because geekiness.

    And if writing was such a zero sum game, for every Stephen King there would have to be writers buried under a rock. On Pluto a dwarf planet. With no internet access, not even dialup.

    1. Not even dial-up? Horrors!

      How do you catch a reader? Hm. That might be a blog post soon! I did write a series on seducing your reader that is very popular.

  3. Enjoyed the post Cedar– and the picture. Why is it that red-heads are so cute and dangerous at the same time? 🙂 Anyway, I haven’t learned to lure in readers yet– I know the mechanics of marketing (my mother sold advertising for years and was good at it), but I just don’t have the knack. I hope that I throw out enough stories that someone enjoys what I write.

    Anyway– Cedar– I just bought your newest and I really enjoyed Pixie Noir. Good luck and good writing.

    1. Well, in my vast experience *breaks down laughing*

      I’ve only been doing this seriously for 2 years now. I did a lot of research and just watching in interest for about a decade. I am finding that quantity helps. Once you have more out, they begin to find you.

      I’m glad you liked Pixie Noir!

  4. Bravo, Cedar! Well put.Much of the same logic can be made for the economics and politics we are facing with zero sum mentalities out there.

    A thought flashed in my head when you mentioned the post-binary and message fiction. I recently saw a story where Nichelle Nichols is being honored again for her role in Star Trek. Her role as a Black person, even a black woman, was groundbreaking, but it worked because the story was good. If people want to sell a message, they need to want to sell a story more. Let people feel the message, not hear it.

    As a reader, my problem these days has gone from having nothing good to read, to having more good authors to check out than I have time, between work, grad school, my own writing, family, etc. First with Baen, then Sarah Hoyt, and now MGC, It is a wonderful .problem to have. Keep it coming!

    1. And that is precisely what I had in mind when I referred to the exponential growth. Publishers moan over not having readers, but funny enough, when there are stories availble that engage and amuse the reading publisc, the readers reappear.

      1. “Write it, and they will come.”

        On Sat, Mar 1, 2014 at 12:48 PM, madgeniusclub wrote:

        > Cedar Sanderson commented: “And that is precisely what I had in mind > when I referred to the exponential growth. Publishers moan over not having > readers, but funny enough, when there are stories availble that engage and > amuse the reading publisc, the readers reappear. ” >

  5. But we ARE competing for limited shelf space… in people’s homes. Well, the Kindle solves that issue, you can save your books on the cloud or your hard drive. You can store more books than you can possibly read. In fact, there already ARE more books than anyone can possibly read.

    So, the limiting resource is a reader’s time?

    Hmmm, anyone have a back of the envelope calculation for how long it would take to read a terabyte of plain text? I’ve got seven times that much total capacity right now.

    1. I haven’t been tested in ages, but back in middle school I was tested for reading at about 1200 wpm. It depends on what I’m reading, and why. I slow way down for non-fic or something with prose I want to savor.

      1. *chuckle* I’ve had to re-train myself to slow down. I used to go through a three-hundred page book a night (om nom nom!)… after research material, study, writing exercises, and various other coursework. Probably not much over 1k wpm.

        Now I will put a book down sometimes, mid-chapter, just to savor it for a while. Some things are worth taking your time over, and a particularly good book is certainly one of them.

        1. Yes, short story collections are good for that, too. Read a story, savor… But I have such a list to-read at this point, I read as quickly as I feel like it. On a sick day, trying to shut out pain, I can go through a half-dozen.

    2. I ran out of shelf space a couple years ago. There’s still the floor, though.

        1. In 2003, Oldfather Hall at the U of Nebraska had to have engineering studies done because no one had calculated the effects of housing the English and History departments on upper floors. An urgent request came out for all faculty to remove all but the most necessary books, because parts of the floors were starting to bow and possible crack from the excess weight.

          1. Years ago on the Old Baen’s Bar, I recall a conversation about a Barfly who was having the floors in their house built up because their book collection was threatening to fall into the basement. I remember being awed by the size of that collection!

            1. I’m renting a lower-level apartment, so there’s no problem with floor strength. Instead, there’s problems reaching the lower shelves, and the possibility that some day, a stack will fall over and kill me in my sleep. Which is acceptable as a death.

  6. Dan lane & Cedar, in HS, I was about 4 times faster than the reading speed tester. Prior to 12/2000, it was guesstimated at ~2K wpm. Now, it’s much slower, as pain slows the mind a *lot.*
    Re: Marketing.
    True marketing is like fishing. You out out a desirable appearing “lure,” and they “bite” on it. You do that, by putting lures in places they might find them. With readers, we’re so dispersed that it’s harder to do. Obviously, a blog/FB account helps to be found. I’ll have an email list for when I start publishing. I *may* include announcements of publishing from authors I think readers might like. More likely a second list.

    1. Pain is bloody distracting, that’s about the second worst thing about it. I’m not looking forward to being “old,” because the stupid things I’ve done in the past are going to come back… with interest. *chuckle*

      As for marketing… I am wondering. With indie, you are your own publisher. Smart publishers (*cough*Baen*cough*) have these nifty little “if you liked this book try this!” pages in the back. Seeing as most indie writers don’t have the catalog that a publisher has, I wonder if cross-marketing your work in other people’s would be workable (and vice versa, marketing theirs in the back of yours). “You like shifter novels? Here’s a bunch more that are good.” Sort of like cover blurbs. Feeds the reader tasty books, feeds authors money, as long as both (or several) authors are okay with it, who knows?

      1. Right now I am putting snippets of my other work, and a list of other titles, in the backs of my books (print and electronic). I do, however, have an arrangement with friends to promote them. Also, oddly, I am doing that with the cover quotes on Pixie Noir, by asking Amanda Green to contribute one to it. She gets some name recognition from that.

      2. That’s part of why I think a “Human Wave Website” would be a good thing, for cross-promotion of books and authors.

        And it should be contractually obligates to shut down in ten years or whenever it gets too focused on ideological purity, whichever comes first.

        As a first step, we could organize some cross-promotional reading list/ads that could easily be dropped into the back of books like the old paperbacks used to have.

        1. And this is how the Book Plug Friday, and the reader/writers day over at According to Hoyt came into being. Yes, a dedicated website would be nice – I don’t think any of us have time to put it together right now. Although you do remind me to look at designing Human Wave postcards to drop at cons, this year as I get around to a few of them.

          1. Right, so maybe a start would be to distill down the book plug into something that would be a couple of pages and start tacking it on to the ends of our books?

              1. We could create a group blog specifically for book plugs, and link to it. Each plug could have links to each site.

                If we wanted to do “ads”, one could pick and choose from the entries, and delete the inappropriate link from each version for each publisher’s edition.

      3. Seeing as most indie writers don’t have the catalog that a publisher has, I wonder if cross-marketing your work in other people’s would be workable (and vice versa, marketing theirs in the back of yours).

        That seems like a truly excellent idea!

  7. All interesting. The most discouraging thing about the writing game for me is that sometimes I think there are more writers than readers, and all clamoring for attention. I can even feel some sympathy for Shepherd and the rest, in terms of feeling intimidated by the prominent writers in the field and overlooked in favor of the same. It’s particularly frustrating when you see an author (deliberate generalization, no names) who seems to be getting by on the strength of their brand, even if they had put in a lot of work early in their careers. I’m speaking as someone who’s very much a B on Mr. Freer’s ABC ranking. I’m still working on setting up a Web site and Facebook page in between work and writing my next book, and wouldn’t even bother accept for the need to advertise.

    1. It’s easy when you intertwine your life with the industry on a daily basis to forget how large the world outside it is. When I talk to fellow students at school I am reminded of that. Most of them loved the Hunger Games, are reading Rick Riordan and the Divergent series, and they will be looking for more good genre fiction when they are finished consuming those… and I haven’t asked, but I’m guessing for these young people, Harry Potter was the gateway book for them.

      There is a whole world out there, and the hardest part is finding a way to be loud enough to be heard without becoming obnoxious. I’m still working on that, but in the meantime, writing good stories gives me something to be loud about 🙂

      1. My strategy, if you can use so grandiose a term, is to get people interested in my first book and try and build a fan base then publishers might be interested in my current WIP and subsequent books.

        One issue is that I keep getting conflicting messages about the cost of a good editing job.

        My first novel is a mosaic of several interconnected novels and novellas, so it was fairly easy for me to do all the editing myself.

        1. The problem with finding a decent editor is knowing what you want (copy-editor, or continuity editor) and then making sure they know what they are supposed to be doing. I can’t speak to rates, overall, as I have found rather mixed results with the different people I’ve used for this.

  8. True story: a couple of years back I was working on a promising novel with a message that became a message novel. I can’t figure out when the shift happened exactly, but it was…an experience. Whole chapters of my forcing myself to write obligatory story and characters that had become as lifeless as cardboard, merely existing as an excuse for (well written) rants. Most of the ‘story’ eventually devolved to bringing in characters meant to be sympathetic (but who were just pathetic) and having them tortured and killed by other characters who justified it by spouting off the beliefs I was opposing.

    Fortunately I got to the point where I shook myself and realized I had killed my story and I was jerking its corpse around like a macabre Weekend at Bernies.

    The reading world can be very thankful that I put it aside. I may go back and figure out what went wrong once my current projects are done. I still think those first chapters were very, very good.

  9. Silicon Valley has a bunch of useful concepts here regarding sizing the potential market and addressing it as much as possible.

    The firstthing to nte is that the potential market for a book is not the current readership of a particular genre – or for that matter of any book at all. As noted by many others including Pam up above, writers are not so much competing with other writers for scarce eyeballs as competing with stuff like beer, movies, game shows and sports events as a way to enjoy one’s leisure time.

    When you look at it that way it makes a lot of sense for writers – particularly indie writers – to try to grow the market for reading (and appreciate it when someone else does) rather than simply seek to get a larger share of a small current market. Of course there’s nothng wrong with seeking to be the “market leader” in a specialized niche and then vocally claiming to be (say) the number one author of exploding penguin erotica, but while it is always good to be able to claim leadership of a niche it is even better to convince the wider public that this niche is not so special after all.

    I note that here in San Diego county the various microbreweries are as likely to promote their “competitors” as anything else. In fact the owners and workers there often go taste the competion and then give constructive criticism. They realize that it is to every brewery’s interest if the demand for craft beer grows and hence want to help their competitors produce a good product. Affter all their real compeitition is the mass brewed horse urine.

    Writers in years gone by certainly understood this. I find it bizarre that a proportion today fails to grasp it.

    1. The readers can read ’em faster than the writers can write ’em, so it makes sense to keep them in the habit of reading until the writer has the chance to get the next one out. Thus there’s nothing to be lost by getting the reader to read someone else in the meantime.

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