New lumps for old… or ‘they’re really not that into you’
There is some reference to yesterday’s post by Cedar – The Dog’s Breakfast – but this principally about what most readers actually want. This is important to us writers. It should be important to Award Committees and Con Coms too.
The funniest thing about this Star Wars tie in novel brouhaha has to be The Grauniad screaming ‘homophobia’ about the fans giving the book 1 or 2 star reviews. What’s funny is not the screeching ‘homophobia’ which Damian and friends do at 10 second intervals in between shrieks of ‘racist’, yowls of sexist and bellows of misogynist – but the fact that the vastly litewarwee pretentious Guardian is praising a Star Wars novel. That has to be a first. Worth a good laugh. Purely defending Chuck Wendig on literary merit, I’m sure. It’s like the No Award voting in the 2015 Hugos.
One of the mistakes people make –- particularly those in power, which in publishing at the moment is the far left of politics (which, like all things will change, and change again) — is the assumption “everyone is like me, and if they’re not, then they are not just different, (or indifferent) they’re WRONG, stupid, evil and should be re-educated, punished until they behave or stamped out.” It’s actually, if you come down to basic motivation, at the core of the Puppy/Puppy Kicker situation, with the Puppy Kickers saying “your taste is shit, is wrong, is worthless”* (of Jim Butcher? At least we have company in our taste), as opposed to the Puppies saying ‘we don’t like the books and stories you do – we’re happy for you to like them. Just don’t claim — in a reader popularity contest – that because you like it or message in it, it is the ‘best’.’ You see it in the “Nobody _I_ know voted for him!” (I laughed the other day to see in a Tony Abbott bashing about the limited number and type of migrant he said we should accept to Australia, just exactly those words, with just exactly the same implication. And the utter inability to accept that a different viewpoint might actually have more support — let alone the possibility that it might be better — than the writer’s personal one.)
It’s quite understandable – we are the center of our own universe. Unless you’re bright enough to work out otherwise, people tend to assume they’re the norm (or at least, they should be). Especially if your social circle share your point of view, and you share theirs, it’s easy to believe there are very few people who disagree with you (and they’re wrong, stupid, evil and should be re-educated, punished until they behave or stamped out.) It is not made any clearer for the folk deluding themselves, by suppression of dissent. There’s a sort of mythical ostrich-head-in-the-sand belief that if you stop dissent, silence opposition, label what there is as bad etc… it goes away. Actually, it’s more like sewing closed a wound which still has foreign bodies in it. You’re making the problem worse, long term, for a short term appearance of ‘better’.
Where this really, truly comes unstuck is, for example, in our field, writing. Readers will rarely come out and say something which is un-PC, or for which they will be attacked. Seriously, let’s say the black or gay or feminist character in your book gets up the nose of the reader. Very few of the readers will put their name to slating your book for that reason (Wendig may be right, that might be behind some of the 1 star reviews that don’t even mention homosexuality). But they will vote with their purchasing power, because that is safely anonymous. One of the messages being studiously ignored by Traditional Publishing is falling sales numbers. If they’re forced to admit it exists, they claim it is ‘other factors’ like TV or the internet. But, despite those other factors SOME authors continue to grow their audiences.
You could be writing your book to make a statement about your pet cause. You could be writing it for catharsis about your experiences as a homosexual hooker, or as a soldier (RBV is my ‘catharsis’ book. The pictures are links)
– but there is no reason to expect the arbitrary reader to buy it for that reason. Yes, if they believe in your pet cause, or also find the story cathartic, it might work for that reader. If that is a big enough audience, it can be a success, financially. Otherwise it needs to be more than that (Which is why I tried to make RBV funny, fast-moving, and with layers of other things.)
To be a financial popular success, that keeps readers who aren’t enjoying a sermon about their rightness, or have no interest in the issues of being a hooker, or being a soldier, it has to generate that care, be enough beside that to make them enjoy it, to make them come back again, to make the genre flourish. When a book which doesn’t have that appeal is promoted and pushed for the sake of its ‘issue’, it isn’t just a failure to itself, it fails all of us. It hurts all of us. A book that transcends that is wonderful. It’s also very, very rare.
Mostly success – in terms of returning customers, in terms of a growing audience, is achieved by giving your audiences character they can accept, identify with, and believe in. This doesn’t always mean the truth. If you want to give them something that they don’t find palatable or probable you have to do a good job of selling it. When I wrote PYRAMID SCHEME I’d spent a whole 10 days in the US. I was born, bred and raised in South Africa. I knew a few male Americans – The JLB Smith Institute was the Southern Hemisphere’s best-rated Ichthyology center at the time I was there, which meant we got folk from all over the world – four Americans among them — all unequivocally male. There was a Canadian woman, but I gather that’s a different country (yes. It’s a joke. I make them). It was a relatively small research institute and three of those guys were good friends of mine, people I spent a lot of time with. I imagined I knew a bit about how Americans thought and what they knew. What I forgot is that these were expats in my country.
So when I got a generally good review for Pyramid Scheme…
the reviewer slated me for the female South African Zoologist I wrote into it. She was just too American, with American female attitudes and outlook. Not a ‘real’ South African, I was… um… puzzled (yeah, that’s a better, more polite way of putting it than gob-smacked, laughing like a hyena). I actually wrote to the critic explaining this – politely, not a la Chuck Wendig, which was really stupid of me. You can’t explain.
I was at fault. I didn’t know my audience (mostly American) well enough to know their pre-conceptions about how ‘different’ people were in South Africa. Now… well, I’d explain better. People are remarkably similar, even if they come from a different country, but share a similar background. Middle-class South Africa, is very like middle class America in very many ways. There are differences, but obviously not the size of the difference that reader expected.
Now the same applies to a straight guy who doesn’t have a lot to do with gay people, or white reader who barely knows any black guys, outside of TV, or vice versa, of course. They’ve got their ideas, which are possibly wildly wrong. But here’s the thing: unless that character shows traits they care about, identify with and can believe plausible in that character (just as my critic though my South African Zoologist too American to be real)… no matter how important you consider that minority or the point you’re making about them, it’s worthless if your reader doesn’t care that deeply about them, can’t believe in them.
You may be deeply invested in the problems faced by 0.1% or 4% or 13% of the population. But a lot of people aren’t. It’s not necessarily true that they’re homophobic or racist if they don’t like your book. You can call them that, as Wendig has. It may get you some sympathy sales from people who share your views – and alienate a lot more people who don’t like being insulted. The truth, in many cases I suspect, is more mundane, and hurts a lot more. Ask anyone who really fancied so-and-so, put out their best lures, only to have a friend tell you ‘They’re really not that into you.’
That’s the reality of being a writer. Mine as much as Chuck Wendig’s. It’s not a captive audience. They don’t have to buy your books. They can just walk away, and they will. You have to please your target audience or you’re a waste of shelf-space. It’s not about you, or your pet cause, unless that is what your target audience wants.
It’s true at a genre scale, and specifically when you’re writing in someone else’s universe, one which has a loyal following.
They don’t want new. Or you, if you’re new and different.
No matter how often they tell you they want ‘new’, most of your audience don’t want ‘new’. If you’re going to give them ‘new’ you’re going to have to be utterly, absolutely brilliant. Most of us are not.
What the audience want is ‘new old’. You can push the boat a little bit, but the audience has expectations (just as my critic had about South African women). You can change those, but you have to do so gently and skillfully, until that change feels ‘just like old (but new)’. There is a small percentage of readers who want the new (something novel!) but seriously, if you’re following footsteps (and we all are) you will never be ‘as good’ for some readers – and if you go off at a tangent, they’ll mostly hate you.
That of course is a worse thing than them not being into you. There always are worse things – and most of them happen at sea (just speaking from experience here.) There are two (at least) levels of this. On file 770 – on the only time I have bothered to comment there — the charming crowd there were engaged in having fun kicking my terrible prose around and saying what an awful writer I was (It is true that they had a problem with what I was saying, but that was harder to attack, and saying what a useless writer I was, was a nice easy target.) Shrug. Blog posts are not something I get paid for. I am not a particularly brilliant writer, and my efforts go into my novels, which I don’t do in a hurry, which makes me money. I work hard at that, get it edited, take advice on that. I probably still stuff up, but it’s not for lack of effort. It is not so with blog posts or comments. Snowcrash – who sometimes comments here, made a comment back then about never bothering to buy my books because I was such a bad writer. I was supposed to be offended and hurt. I wasn’t.
Instead I thanked Snowcrash very much for that, and I meant it, absolutely. Because, as Chuck Wendig is going to discover, and I hope you will avoid discovering, someone who wanted “new old” or product A, expected “new old”, PAID for “new old”… and then got product B which wasn’t ‘new old’, or similar, but which was something they didn’t want, or expect or like is the worst possible outcome. Firstly, they’re not going to buy another, and secondly will associate, and blame that author for a lot more value than $17, let alone the pittance the author got. As an author you’d rather they hated you unread, than paid money and then hated you, especially if those people are a major part and influence on buyers who will buy your work, now and in future. Those people may be ‘suckaz’ as Wendig put it, but they’re going to piss all over your future – and that’s without you insulting them. Curiously, Chuck Wendig may just have become the Puppies biggest recruiter. All one has to say to the irritated Star Wars fan is: “Oh, him. Yes, he thinks we’re awful and wants to eliminate us from the awards process.”
The key thing is that that one group of people you don’t mess with are your major group of customers, whoever they are. If you’re Kameron Hurley, you don’t peeve radical feminists. If you’re Larry Correia you don’t peeve gun owners (neither of these are very likely. Both identify strongly with their set, and sell to them). If you’re writing in the universe of a popular franchise, you don’t peeve the normal customers of it. They may not be your personal core group, but they’re a huge group, and the franchise’s core.
There is no point in pleasing a group of POSSIBLE customers at the cost of that core group.
It’s like a butcher stopping selling meat to please possible vegan customers. (Which is not unlike the situation many of puppies found themselves with the puppy kickers. People like Snowcrash and friends had never bought my books, wouldn’t like my books if they did – and threatened not to read me? Oh, be still my beating heart!) It’s a very different kettle of fish, when it’s my regulars, my fans, my customers.
For them, I will have the new old that they want. Shifting things slowly, if at all, keeping them happy. If you want to make a success of this, I suggest you do too.
*Irene Gallo – ‘bad-to-reprehensible works on this year’s Hugo ballot.’. We can find hundreds more quotes, all boiling down to ‘your taste is shit, we know what is good for you.’