I’ve noticed something over the last few years of my involvement with traditional publishing.
I’ve noticed I have to change my socks.
Well… I have noticed a few other things too. One or two. The disconnect between customers and writers is what I was planning to write about however. It is possibly more interesting than the state of my socks (yes, dear reader, I confess, I am socks obsessed. I have had it blamed on the army, but in truth it comes down to my fish farming time, where I spent a lot of nights trying to cope with the storms that would destroy the farm if I hadn’t been out in them, fixing, unblocking… with my feet utterly numb, and wet. Dry warm socks were a distant dream that kept me going.)
The problem the author faces is that he (or she) may be drawn from the very people he will appeal to, and know them well, but he’s out of contact with a lot of them. Even if he has a vast twitter following, or is a very popular blogger… that is still the tiniest fragment of the world, and may well be not a representative sample, or even a sample representing the kind of people who would love his writing.
The vast majority of those potential customers do not live in New York. They did not do liberal arts degrees at Liberal East Coast Colleges. They do not work in New York Publishing. They do not all know each other. They do not attend WorldCon. They wouldn’t recognize a Hugo if it bit them on the leg.
Now, it’s a big, complex world and the US is a big, complex country, with as many little interest groups as I have pairs of socks… well, something like that, anyway. You can be a ‘bestseller’ simply selling well to ONE of those little interest groups. (I read somewhere that 17K hard-back sales will get you onto the NYT bestseller list. I suspect it varies week-to-week, and may well be much lower than that, if you have inside knowledge of which stores to target). This is why books appealing strongly to a highly invested audience – be that transsexuals or neo-Nazis, can LOOK like they’re universally popular- because really it’s a very low bar (not saying it’s an easy bar, but say 20K out of let’s say 200 million (not everyone will read, or will necessarily speak the language the book is written in) is 0.01% … and a bestseller. You can get there, just on sales to transsexuals and their friends. Of course if you want sell say… 2 000 000 copies – just 1% of that 200 million you need to appeal strongly to several small special interest groups or at least one group with enough people (if you appeal strongly) – let’s say to gay readers so 1 in four would buy your book — you could look like a super-bestseller while 95% of the population doesn’t really love your book.
In reality, of course, few books appeal that strongly to any demographic segment. You’re lucky if you appeal to 5% of any one segment. Of course many authors will appeal to a lot of demographic segments – some strongly—and some less so, but still adding numbers. And of course even a tiny percentage of big market segment is still a lot of books. Say your book appeals strongly to Mormons selling to 1 in 100, more or less 60K copies, and to 4 in 10 000 women… you’ve still stormed to near the top of the bestseller list.
It doesn’t take a commercial genius to work out 1) books with a narrow sector of interest have to appeal a lot more strongly to do well – on the other hand you’re much more likely to gain strong partisans if your book has a very precise target, especially if it is under-served. So for example a book about Japanese gay Muslims would probably go down really well and be ardently supported and pushed by any Japanese gay Muslims… there probably aren’t that many, though. 2) For a publisher, (unless you’re a specialist publisher, or don’t care about money), your output probably ought be either carefully targeted or sure to appeal to a broad demographic range. An Indonesian non-niche publisher would have to be as daft as a brush to have his entire output with non-Muslim heroes – and Muslim villains. An individual author, of course, can do niche and succeed, or try for a broad brush, appealing to a lot of segments. He is far less constrained than any major publisher ought (by any measure of common sense) to be. Their output must re
I can hear you all now: “Why are you bothering to tell us what is glaringly obvious? Why don’t you talk about socks instead? We all know socks sells, but we have no idea how or why.”
Well, I am writing about it, because it plainly is something which evades many editors and publishing houses, and the chances are quite a few authors never really thought about ‘who is my target?’ ‘Who am I writing for?’ ‘Who do I hope to sell to?’
For authors publishing traditionally, that answer was ‘my publisher’ – pleasing the readers was irrelevant, as long as your publisher loved you. The publisher lived in New York. They had liberal arts degrees at Liberal East Coast Colleges. Their world was New York Publishing. The circle they move in all know each other. Their views on politics and society are near identical, and they attend WorldCon, and think it important. The Hugo Awards were very relevant to them. And as they were the only gatekeepers, pleasing them was all-important, and readers who were not like them were stupid ignorant peasants they and could take what they were given, be grateful, and pay up. Lots of readers –neither ignorant nor stupid—just walked away. This is very obvious in the declining sales numbers reported by people who have everything to gain by hiding this decline. It is real, even if Patrick Nielsen Hayden says his sales are booming (think about it. Bowker and Bookscan – with no reason to get it wrong also report enormous falls. If he is telling the truth – that means the rest are doing far worse. Quite a nasty insult, if false. Perhaps they are, as not one of his peers gainsaid it. But maybe neither he nor they worked it out. It doesn’t seem a field long on strategic thinkers, or veracity, for that matter.)
It made a gap that Indies, Baen and various new start-ups –like Castalia House– have exploited.
It’s been very revealing during the various bursts of rage at the Sad Puppies by traditionally published authors and their publishers. We’re getting to see that dislike, that disdain, that ‘second (or possibly far lower) class citizen, should not be allowed to vote, aren’t ‘Real Fans’, should be put in a dog-pound (we’re not human, and there is no need to treat us as such, apparently. Now I do understand that as far as this monkey is concerned, but most of the pups, their supporters and friends are as human as their detractors.) You get editors like Betsy Wolheim at DAW telling us filthy hoi polloi “as an editor, it makes me angry to see a writer as important as GRRM having to spend his valuable time informing ignorant people about the history of worldcon and the history of the Hugos.” Thanks Betsy. A good spin attempt to blame us for GRRM’s decisions. He’s adult, he can decide what he wants to do. We pig-ignorant revolting peasants can’t actually MAKE him do anything. He wasn’t going to write any more if Bush was re-elected IIRC. The tide of BS from this has overflowed my gum boots.
I said I needed to change my socks.
I respect and like my target audience. It’s what I believe is quite a large audience, over quite a few sectors of society. Basically it is people who judge people on their merits as individuals, value battlers, who believe in independent thought, who value freedom and honor and integrity. I don’t do group-think or political correctness or kissing up. I work with my hands (and my brain), I hunt my own food. These are my people, and that’s who I write for. (A few of them may even live in New York and have Liberal Arts degrees, although I have yet to see any evidence of them being in NY literary circles – for which I am devoutly grateful.)That’s who I publish for. That’s what writers need to always keep in the forefront of their communication and their books.
But who in the hell do the authors and publishers who think we’re ignorant shit write and publish for?
It’s not you.