Who we write (and publish) For.

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.

64 Comments

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64 responses to “Who we write (and publish) For.

  1. As someone who is very, very particular about her socks, I fully endorse this post.

    On a related note, I’m intrigued, or perhaps amused, and occasionally appalled that the same generation that proclaimed “I’m an individual!” and “Find your own bliss!” and “Be yourself!” or “Down with segregation and discrimination!”and decried those who worked to satisfy the tastes of the masses are now the exact same ones saying “write this and naught else,” and “only authors darker than this paint chip have stories worth considering.” Apparently once they became a self-perpetuating (in their own minds) elite, they felt the need to close the door. Because, well, “Enlightenment! Noble Truth!” one supposes (with apologies to any Buddhists reading this bit of prose.)

    • Alan S.

      It’s a couple generations brought up on Frost’s ideal “Take the road less travelled!”

      Now it’s non-stop traffic jams on the road labelled “Less travelled.”

      • Which is irony because he wrote that poem for a friend and the intended message was actually “stop dithering and make a decision already.” (Whether to enlist and go to war or take Frost’s invite of an extended stay in America)

    • Holly

      Cotton and wool only, no petroleum products.

      Which maybe goes to explain my tastes in books as well as socks (and other clothing) . . .

    • Yep. All of it. I endorse this marmelade kitten’s opinions.

    • I was there. They are arrant liars. I was (truly I say unto you 🙂 stoned by these fervent conformists for being a defiant “do my own thing, yes, I mean it. You can bite me, weirdo.

      So, no, not really a surprise.

      Dave is, however, spot on about the socks. The trick is good natural fibers and adequate aeration. And remember, you can fit spares in your purse.

      I said I was a weirdo, right?

  2. Well said, Dave! Well said.

  3. Timid1

    I’ve wondered about the echo chamber effect and declining sales quite a bit. New York and urbanized vicinity are its own microcosm, which is quite fine if you’re writing for a certain section of New Yorkers, but isn’t going to do much for those beyond the city limits. One of the amusing things is when a writer and publisher goes for “edgy” or “controversial,” and pick topics that might insult those they view on the “fringes,” but never really have the courage to tweak what they think is their core readership.

    While we’re busy patting ourselves on the back, we would do well to recognize that there’s all sorts of echo chambers, and not all are defined by beltways and New Yawk accents. But just being aware that the echo chambers exists will put you ahead of the game.

    In a real-life example, I saw an indie author do spectacularly well going the print route. He had written a history on a topic with limited appeal, but he knew where to find those who’d like it, stocked his books there, and sold out regularly. In comparison was a indie publisher who tried to do the same with a a book of poetry, and attempted to sell it where there wasn’t an interest. And the books sat. They may still be there, gathering dust. The first author knew his book had limited appeal, and essentially asked where were the boundaries of his “echo chamber,” and marketed it within those boundaries. The other imagined that their echo chamber was the population in general and did poorly.

    • “While we’re busy patting ourselves on the back, we would do well to recognize that there’s all sorts of echo chambers, and not all are defined by beltways and New Yawk accents. But just being aware that the echo chambers exists will put you ahead of the game.”
      great comment

  4. Uncle Lar

    “But who in the hell do the authors and publishers who think we’re ignorant shit write and publish for?”
    They write for their own incestuous circle jerking tribe, for which they receive the accolades they believe they so richly deserver. Next week it’s their buddy’s turn to get the accolades. Doesn’t matter that those accolades are getting shopworn and were a bit tacky to begin with.
    All well and good. Not our problem. But what galls them is that we will not buy their shit. They honestly do not care if we read it or not, we after all are the great unwashed and have no taste, so why would they care? But we aren’t giving them money, and that is simply unacceptable.
    I’m actually surprised that no one in their camp has made a strong case for them eliminating the profit motive and getting paid instead through government grants. Then they could write their ever so perfect tomes and collect a stipend commensurate with their most excellent talent.
    What they’ve done is their level best to turn publishing into literary small press while still expecting the revenue that only comes through a product with mass appeal. They are increasingly frustrated and slowly going broke, and that is simply unacceptable to the average lefty elitist.

    • Nathan

      Holly Lisle’s departure letter from SFWA pointed out that part of the reason for the SFWA move from Mass. to California was so that SFWA could now receive government grants. So I think they are moving in the direction you’ve said, just not publically.

    • Sigh. Academia.

      What, you thought those University publishing houses were for-profit?

  5. We’re the sons of peasants. Glory, and riches, and stars are beyond our grasps. But dry socks, that dream can come true.

    • Funny enough, it seems that the stories say the sons of peasants can have glory, riches, and the stars… but if you set out on that road, warm dry socks are in short supply.

      • Rather like most ‘guy comes forward from X old time to modern era’ miss one thing that would probably amaze such people: warm socks fresh from the dryer.

  6. TRX

    Elvis has left the building and the puppies aren’t going to go away. By next year there will be Sad Puppies IV, Rabid Puppies II, and likely more groups of puppies, along with kittens, fruit bats, and wombats.

    Science fiction is where the fault line cracked open, but there are other genres out there with the same gatekeeper problems.

    The next few years will be interesting.

  7. Majestic_Moose

    Well I do live in NY (the state not the city), but my degree is in Civil Engineering from a tech school. Also I’m from upstate NY, whole different beast.

  8. OH, THAT’S who Betsy Wolheim is. I just stumbled onto that one facebook post of hers and the cloud of jerks around her is just amazing.

    • Draven

      GRRM is an ‘important writer’… because we can all learn from him how to chain along your readership for 20 years, apparently.

      • Donald A. Wollheim was one of sf’s greatest pranksters and trolls, in his youth. It’s freakin’ hilarious to have the daughter of Ghu Himself claiming that there’s no place at all for fannish frolics and campaigning.

    • Matthew

      I got a chuckle out of “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.”

      I mean, it’s not like he’d be using that time to write books or anything, given his output over the last several years.

  9. One sad thing about all of this mess is finding out all of these people and companies I have to cross off the list of possible publishers of the novels I’m writing. Even if they were interested in my books, I’m not sure I could bring myself to write for someone who has expressed such disdain and vitriol for people “like me”.

    Starts to seem like indie is the only possibility. Baen would be good, obviously, but they’re only one publisher and have limited slots. I think I remember reading that it takes a year to get through their slush pile. I don’t think I’d leave a work I’m ready to publish sitting that long.

    Oh well. Good thing I’m not writing for the money.

    • Karin, it took me 2 years, and my sub was the only one that made it that year, It is tough, but you can do it.

    • Timid1

      If life slows down long enough, I’ve got to give indie a shot. The sad thing, though, is I’m considering artesan soap making, and it may have greater profit potential. Not joking.

      • Holly

        Considering what I and my friends pay for a bar of soap that doesn’t make our kids’ allergies act up . . . I’d go for the soap.

      • Go for the soap making if you like it – but beware, you’re not selling soap. You’re selling a story to people, of who they are when they buy and use this soap, or of who you are that they want to support / be connected to when they buy and use this soap.

        You’ll find story creeping in on your typography, your ad copy, your marketing pitch, and even the way you list your ingredients. (One of my favorite soap companies, instead of listing “water” as an ingredient, says “Alaska rain and snow.” It’s true, as the water supply does come from rain or snowmelt, but it’s a story, you see, about the purity and natural goodness of the soap.)

        All small crafters and artisans are storymakers, the merchants of dreams.

  10. What makes you think that the niche of people who like David Freer is any bigger than, say, the niche that likes John Scalzi? What data (if any) do you have to support your assumption?

    • Achievement Unlocked:
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      In other words, I defy you to point to something in the original post or the comments to it that suggests Dave Freer believes the niche he targets is larger than the one John Scalzi does.

      • It’s what I believe is quite a large audience, over quite a few sectors of society… (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.)

        Certainly seems to me that he thinks his niche is bigger.

        • Bigger, or just different?

          • “quite a large one” would suggest at least as big as.

            • Achievements Unlocked:
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              • Joel, surely we can grant him ‘skim until offended’? He is perpetually offended, merely by our existence.

                • That one’s a bit narrower, and needs something taken out of context which the complainant Views With Alarm. F’rinstance, if we picked on his comment “You’re just whistling Dixie” and complained that he was accusing us of racism—that would be us engaging in Skim Until Offended.

        • Ah. We have another case of Gerrib. Joel has answered your silly attempt to derail the debate with a degree of skill I can only admire. The unsupported conclusions you jump to and your obsession with John Scalzi are worrying. You need help, and I am afraid here is not the place to get it. However, if you wish to prove your diversion (which was neither stated nor implied. I seldom think of John Scalzi. My interest is not even tepid, in him or his books. I have no idea of what numbers, or whom, he sells. I am not his publisher.) you produce his data. Verifiable, because I have good reason to doubt you and him. I’ll match it, as long as you include accurate (and verifiable) measure of his promotion. My point, which with your customary skill you seem to have missed is that I identify with the people I aim to sell to. Your hero, on the other hand, sold ‘Old man’s War’ to a lot of people who he has since gone on to tell he thinks are despicable.

          • Dave – regards to sales figures – you first.

            • (amused) Would you like to explain why ‘me’ first, Chrissy?

              • You in particular and the Sad Puppies in general run around claiming y’all sell lots of copies of books, yet I never see sales or revenue figures. Yet Scalzi, for one, does release numbers.

                • I said ‘verifiable’ Chrissy. Not Scalzi. He’s known to… exaggerate a little. Inflate his importance. Usually by about 3 or 4 times. And the rest, Chrissy. ” I’ll match it, as long as you include accurate (and verifiable) measure of his promotion.” And while you’re at it, find me that reference to my claiming to having sold a lot of copies? Find it Chrissy. You’re digging desperately in your derailing attempt.

                  • I’m digging? You’re the one stooping to grade-school insults on my name.

                    It’s very easy to call somebody a liar – it conveniently shuts down debate.

                    • Debate? There was a debate? All I saw from you was a puerile attempt to derail talk largely among other writers, and to make us look irrelevant -choosing what you thought was your hole card Scalzi. I don’t call people liars unless I have some evidence for that. If that shuts down your little attempt to derail the thread, great. And if you called me Davey I’d laugh. It’s not an insult. If you think it is I can educate you.

                      For the record, I remember Larry putting figures up – he’s doing at least as well as your hole card. I’ve made no claim of being a great seller or author. I frequently tell people I am a hack. I’ve been on a couple of bestseller lists, and I seem to have a very loyal audience, slowly growing. It is normal to see series drop-off, but I have been lucky. Last time I counted – about 7 years ago before I emigrated – for the emigration officials, backed up with copies of all the royalty statements to them (that’s why I am here), I’d sold around 1/3 of a million paper copies, spread over IIRC 13 books. My lowest paper was 6K for the first, and my best IIRC around 67K. E-books with Baen are a pain to calculate -because all you get is value, with no clues as to which are bundles and ARC’s or normal. They earn more than paperback. I have no audio sales (I don’t have the rights) although I know people with lower sales than mine have audio sales. Shrug. When they go out of print (if) they’ll revert, and I should have a go. Judging by my various peers at various houses (yes, we do exchange figures) I’m a bit above median, and I keep selling new books to my publishers, so I guess I don’t lose them money. I’ve earned enough to support myself and my family. It is a bit tight at times, but we put two kids through school and college. Shrug. I’m not vastly ambitious and like writing -and every time I meet a reader of mine I find a lot of common ground. They seem to mostly be technical/technical interest people, probably a bit brighter than average, well-read, independent minded. Perhaps you believe there are very few people like that in the US. Shrug. I think the evidence points the other way. On the other hand I met several of a very NY literary Award winning author’s fans with the author at a con recently. We had no common ground really, and they bored me, and I am sure I bored them. That’s her niche and within it she is well-known and popular. But is it everyone’s cup of tea? No. No more than my books or Scalzi’s books or yours, Chrissy. There should be a choice.

                      And that’s enough patience with you.

        • Ratseal

          Back to “Chasin’ Haitians” for you, LT Gerrib. You introduced Scalzi and tried to compare niches so you get to prove your statement with a quote from the MGC article. Too hard? Fair enough – since it doesn’t exist.

          What Freer said (paraphrased) was that the world of readers is larger than the NYC publishing intelligentsia. Are you suggesting that is Scalzi’s niche? Curious. Freer’s actual comment was, “I respect and like my target audience. It’s what I believe is quite a large audience, over quite a few sectors of society.” He didn’t say it was larger than anyone else’s niche. He suggested that it is broader than the NYC scene.

          Better luck “Chasin’ Facts” next time. Lift the tail on the AutoDog and soothe yourself, m’kay? Kay.

    • Matthew

      The sales figures to push ratio.

      Duh.

      • You have sales figures? Link please.

        • Matthew

          Nope, but that’s the technique I’d use. That said, Scalzi would have to outsell Freer by a factor of 5 or so to have a higher ratio.

          • Without sales figures you’re just whistling Dixie.

            • So are you Gerrib. And you made the claim in the first place. Produce the figures to back up your claim, or withdraw that statement. You’ve established your mathematical ignorance here before but just to rub it in… to compare authors you’d have to run this: (sales figures/availability)/publicity. My bookstore distribution (availability) is terrible. My publicity is trivial. Your darling’s distribution is excellent, his publicity-both from himself, and via considerable expenditure by his publisher is huge. He works hard at it, and promotes himself relentlessly.

              • No, Dave, I made no claim. I saw you make an assumption, namely that your niche was bigger than the “New York literary scene” and I asked what evidence you had to support it. Apparently the answer is “none.”

                distribution is excellent, his publicity-both from himself, and via considerable expenditure by his publisher is huge. Presumably, his for-profit publisher, controlled by a man who’s also a partner at Baen, is seeing significant financial return (read “selling books”) for all of this effort. Also, having good distribution would seem to me to be a critical success factor in any consumer product business. In short, they appear to be features, not bugs.

                • I’m still waiting for where you find that ‘assumption’ “namely that your niche was bigger than the “New York literary scene” ” – other than in your imagination. Quote it. Strawman fail Chrissy. I am amused that you conclude Scalzi is New York Literary.
                  Logic really isn’t your strong point, but non-sequitur is certainly what you do best. The point is not ‘features or bugs’ or what my publisher does or doesn’t do. Self-promotion is effective. I don’t do it well, and your darling does. Good for him. I’ve said as much in the past, it is valuable, just not one of my skills. But it is not a measure of how closely people in your target niche/s identify with your books and love them. That’s really only measurable by how much word-of-mouth between readers happens. You can only work that out by comparing apples with apples which means you need to correct for how many people were exposed to the book in first place. So Chris Gerrib’s book got punted by his friend Scalzi, and his own efforts, and available only on Amazon reached a thousand people (a hypothetical figure) and sold 1500 copies. Scalzi’s book, punted by himself, his contacts, and his publisher with a book-tour, endcaps, advertising etc and available and automatically restocked on sale reached 30K and sold 40K. Who did the readers like more? Or to put it in terms of the formula (sales figures/availability)/publicity. Let’s put your publicity at 0.02 and John’s 1. Your availability is at Amazon only – 0.5 and Scalzi is once again 1.

    • Mr. Gerrib: I liked Scalzi. I squeeeed in fan girlish delight over Zoe’s Tale. Somewhere there’s a local TV clip of me in high heels and a “library schooled” t-shirt raving about it at ABA. Just as I squeed over David Freer’s Stardogs. The characters! The story! The SF-nal sensa-wonder amaze-bos!

      Scalzi has since sold his artistic soul for The Inner Ring. Freer never will. I’m the niche of reader who, discovering via that newfangled interweb thingummy that Steve Miller and Sharon Lee are OMG!!!! Not Dead and in fact have written “plan B” got on the phone at 11pm and called all her laid-fan friends.

      Freer is still writing for us. Butcher, ditto. Hoyt, Wright, Correia, Smith, Hale, Sanderson, and that ilk? Oh yeah. Scalzi. Not so much. He’s writing for the SJW herd-mentality, Ghu-help-you-if-you-offend-the-current (-and, the can change without notice-) pieties. Not as big of a market segment as you might think.

      But… You don’t have to walk in lock-step, and God-willing the SJW mob will go too far (he is one of the bottom castes) and Scalzi will tell them to take a long walk off a short pier and go back to following his muse.

      You, too, maybe?

      • Overgrownhobbit – Hey – yah know I got to do a piece of cover copy on Miller & Lee book! 🙂 (Meant more than a Hugo could to me.)
        And yes. I never will.