Mud, Glorious Mud…
“Mud, mud, glorious mud,
Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood.”
Flanders and Swann – The Hippopotamus’s Song
So come let us wallow… Now a few weeks ago I wrote of the poor fellow who decried the terrible tragic sinking into the swamp, the morass of self-published drekk, where jewels (such, naturally, as his own offerings) would be lost. No one would ever sell more than fifty copies. Alas, alack, alackaday-dee…(and various other suitable cries of woe, and occasional alarums).
Let me draw you a picture of a hill to comfort you. Because, you know, if you don’t want to be down in the swamp… what you need is hill. Well, mostly. As a mountaineer I can tell you near-vertical bogs do exist, and many an adventure hangs… or falls, thereby, but that aside water mostly runs downhill. And where there is not more land than water, it becomes very attractive to amorous Hippopotami. If you’re a hippo, it’s a good place to be. This may not be true for aging hipsters bemoaning Indy sales. You’ll have to forgive the hokey pictures – I got coreldraw for my birthday and today I tried to use it. Take the will for the deed – because it makes my point.
So look, behold, and otherwise espy: A hill. Otherwise known as a normal Gaussian distribution. Stick with ‘hill’. It’s simpler and rhymes with thrill, which is what the author who does not want to be in the swamp gets, when he finds himself on a dry piece of the hill. Now that doesn’t have to be the top of the hill – just a place where there is no rain (books that can soak in there) and thirsty ground (readers who want books that appeal to them). It can be very big hill, so a dry patch can be quite enough to make an author a living.
Now the hill can ‘describe’ all sorts of things, from an interest in gay romance, or how readers feel about a particular author, to the IQ of a country. The high point of the hill compared to the high point hill that is the demographic of the whole body of possible readers isn’t the same, and, duh, obviously, the biggest hill possible matches the demographic of the possible reading populace precisely. That’s a big hill, if we just talk English first language and an IQ of over 90… say 200 million strong. Some of those will read very little. Some of those will consume a lot of books. Again you can draw a hill for consumption, and the ‘sweet spot’ highest of that hill is not with the few reading 5 books a day (like me, on a reading jag) nor with the one book in ten years, or with the very bright, or the stupid. It’s probably with the medium-bright, and 2-3 books a month people.
Once upon a time, when the world was so very new and all, men wrote books for men.
A little bit of that leaked into the female half of the possible reader population, but really, it made their heads overheat and explode and there was no point in doing something that might appeal to them.
As time moved on and the world was slightly more shop-soiled and worldly-wise, publishing began to realize that women spent money and really, no one knew or cared what sex the money had come from. And the books, and writers (the lady novelist…) began to cater for both genders. And the Bronte’s and Austen’s found a ready audience, and some of it wasn’t female (the area under the curve represents buyers.) And so, gradually, the publishing industry and writers adapted to pleasing and, not surprisingly, representing their audience. Of course there were bits on the edges, or out of socio-political favor who were ignored. But, in general, this was not a huge part of the curve.
And, let us be real here, most of the readers didn’t care if the 0.1% – or (5 or 10%) the possible reading population – be these the worshipers of the sky-spaghetti-monster, or gay, or ex-Lithuanians didn’t get books that appealed. There was a small but real market for these people, just as there was a small (maybe not as small) market for sf or fantasy. Let someone who is interested in it, who fits there him/herself, write it. For a few writers it can be a good niche.
The problem of course is when you have too many writers in one niche, especially if that’s a small niche. Which cuts to core of what this blog post is about (and mud, of course)
It’s no secret that the bulk of the NY Traditional publishing establishment has steadily moved leftwards, and nowhere more so than in sf-fantasy, which has been more accepting of the left and quite open to the avant garde for their time, for the better part of seventy years – in other words, the claim that sf/fantasy ever was a right-wing, sexist, racist etc etc totally fails to hold water. Taken in a direct comparison to other genres of the same time, sf always was more wide open to the entire spectrum than any other section of literature. That, for a genre that sold to a part of the demographic (those prepared to read sf) was its strength. It’s a strength which has gone to the opposite in the last thirty odd years.
First you had this
Which when the publishing establishment controlled the rainfall (books that could naturally soak in there) … meant that the rest of the hill could go dry or take the run-off, but they weren’t interested (especially in sf/fantasy, in appealing to those sectors. They could like or be educated by it. There were aspects to those authors that might appeal to some readers. And when you controlled access to retail (which is what tradpub did) You could dictate what was available.
So they pushed it to this.
And then of course… it got far more doctrinaire. You had people like Orson Scott Card tossed from the fold because while the rest of his tenets might be ‘progressive’, he didn’t approve of gay marriage. And Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg daring to call a woman a lady… OUT, unclean unclean and so on, narrowing down on PC tenets, producing this.
And then this.
Which is far too much for the tiny part of the reading population in that part of the curve. It exists only because the dry hill is supposed to take it, and as declining sales of sf from tradpub (IIRC they’re down another 6% this year) many people either go dry or go indy. The result is the swamp. And it’s all mud, all the way down. Which if you happen to like mud flavor and color… there’s no shortage. In fact 50 books might be a good sale. Meanwhile the hill is dry.
Of course, that is over-simplifying it. There is no reason a hard-core left-winger can’t write books that appeal to readers elsewhere on the political front. It gets a lot harder when the ‘message’ trumps and invades every bit of story. It gets a lot harder when the villain is always the fellow outside your doctrinaire clique – and you still expect that outsider to buy it and enjoy identifying with the bad guy and being vilified – and knowing that the author obviously is applying a false stereotype. Try and imagine being a black reader, where any black character spend their time either apologizing for sins of all black folk, as if they were his own, or being the vilest of nasty people… I don’t see you buying another book by the author, especially if there is something else on offer, which, um, is the situation now starting to happen.
The big tag of course for indy writers is identifying the empty/under-served niches, and identifying the short medium and long term trends there. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of data available. And yes, it’s common sense – write about subjects and in genres and subgenres that interest you, which you know about, but you’d have to be a very mono-focus fellow to have that making your life easy. I write high fantasy, low fantasy, hard sf, soft sf… Steam punk (well, coal-punk) Alt history, humor, I’ve just finished a cozy whodunit, and realistically that’s just scratching the surface. They’re definitely not PC because the PC swamp couldn’t get any fuller (why do people write this? Is this really how they see the world with token minorities and prescribed attitudes? Or is this because they assume this works because there is so much of it?)
I think the only clues to take is 1) Is there a lot of the particular type of relatively generic stuff? 2) If so does it match the interests of a large demographic segment of the market?
If 1) is true, and 2) is false, don’t go there for ever-so-much, unless you have a new trick.
If 1) is false and 2) is true, you’re golden (I suspect this held true for the early adopters of indy Mil sf. It will probably change if too many suddenly try to write something they have no background in.)
If both are false or true, well, you could do okay.
A curious twist on another popular myth (at least with many trad sf/fantasy writers in their 30’s and 40’s) is that sf was a right wing bastion (false) until they stormed it, but now the future is solidly ‘progressive’, and it’s just old privileged white men (curiously many of these old white men seem to be female) yearning for their lost bastion, gnawing away at the wonderful Hugo awards. Oddly just as many of these new writers are rapidly heading into becoming old privileged white… and quite a lot of them loudly feminist men. But they are convinced that socially and politically their views are what sf/fantasy will be now and forever, once these old people die off, and will we hurry up about it.
Only… um. I had an interesting read of some UK stats that showed 20-30’s… drink less often, and use drugs less often, and are more conservative about money, than either of the previous two generations at that age. They’re also much more likely (in the UK) to vote conservative, than their predecessors. Partly this is rebellion, and partly circumstance, IMO. Socially yes, they are more ‘liberal’ about issues like homosexuality or race. But… well, three little observations here. The first is everything follows the money. The second is that this money reaction is a in itself a sign that things are tougher and more uncertain for young folk than they were when the previous cohorts were making their way through their 20’s. And nothing is more likely to turn those feeling the pinch against any group they feel are getting it easier than them. That has been the product of a PC culture – special perks for special groups. I think it’ll start with being sick of the smallest and most vocal groups and work its way up. Thirdly – people become more conservative as they get older – this is a fair well known and documented fact. So… if this lot are already more conservative… what are their tastes in sf going to be like when they’re fifty? And given that the next generation of the current 30-40’s kids are likely to rebel too… and there is only one way that can go.
And no I am not trying to put you off faithfully cloning whatever ‘new and unique’ thing trad pub is claiming is new and unique – just like its predecessor. But that is the swamp.
Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood.