It didn’t fly

Books fail. We, naturally, look for reasons, and, as often as not, apportion blame.

All of us are at least mildly paranoid to some extent. The paranoids just don’t understand the severity of the issue. Seriously, we come from a long, long line of evolutionary selection that said ‘if you were too trusting, you got eaten.’ There are of course huge benefits in being able to trust and in being trustable – any social species needs this or they stop being social species with all the advantages that implies (you know, facebook, twitter… oh dear. I am digging a deeper hole.)

With this, of course come the inevitable breakdowns in trust, and the fact that, somehow, some people think someone besides Charlie Brown will always play Lucy-ball. You can go on playing Lucy-ball for a long time… but not with the same person. Trust is a rare coin which the same person is unlikely to get twice. The trust between readers and writers is no different. Sometimes that breakdown is by accident – the reader thought this was X and got Y. That may destroy you for that reader. Sometimes it was Lucy-ball – and that reader is not coming back. Re-building trust is hard and slow, and not always possible.

Look, all relationships need some trust, especially by the weaker part of that relationship. As the weaker part you know you are open to exploitation and abuse. If that happens: Common sense says ‘get out’ but often the abuser (or reality) paints a situation where that’s not possible, or at least not easy, and maybe worse. Plenty of writers have found themselves in this situation with their agents, their publishers even their readers. At this point Stockholm syndrome often cuts in. It’s a grim reality, you will encounter in everything from abusive marriages to hostage situations. Writing is no different. Blaming other people, even oneself rather than the abuser is a natural and human reaction (not a healthy one but real). There are plenty of examples in our field: where a publisher or agent or even bookseller has made a horrendous mess of a book, its launch, its availability, printing, cover etc. This is actually pretty obvious. Yet the author will blame almost anyone else. Amazon. The patriarchy. Homophobes… anything that is unlikely to strike back at them.

The above is also true when it comes to trusting yourself. Sometimes your work really just isn’t what the reader wants. You need to deal with this and move on. Few books and fewer writers appeal to everyone. It’s probably not the patriarchy’s fault. Nor is it likely to be the matriarchy’s fault.

For it to be real discrimination, not incompetence, or generic abuse of power (where your publisher doesn’t care if you’re a black male heterosexual conservative, or a white female gay Maoist) the evidence really has to be there. In a field like traditional publishing where the staffing of publishing houses skews strongly female and overwhelmingly left… it is incompetence, not discrimination if you fit their group ID. For it to be malice, the publisher would actually have to know and care who you were, which, despite those Stockholm type delusions, unless you’re a chosen darling, they don’t.

Neither, by in large do readers. It’s not patriarchy that’s stopping men buying your sf. It may be your publisher, your distributor, your cover, or prior experience with your books… but none of these is ‘patriarchy’ or any other nebulous and unable-to-hit-back bad guy.

There is an element of luck. There is an element of skill. There are aspects of history. You can blame away. If the numbers are on your side, you might even be right. But it won’t help you.

The only thing that works is to step away, and try again. If you’re convinced it your religion, skin color, orientation or even that your publisher personally has it in for you, or that all sf readers hate women/men/trannies… There is the chance to prove this, to succeed. Being an author is potentially the most flexible (thanks to Indy publishing) and the least subject to discrimination field in the world – if you choose to make it that.

If it doesn’t fly – stop looking for a safe ‘blame’. If it is you publisher or the traditional publishing establishment… get up and try again. You can use a pseudonym, you can choose your own cover.

You can own it.

38 Comments

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38 responses to “It didn’t fly

  1. Perfect! I frequent the r/fantasy reddit and I often see post from a certain published author that gets more attention from bloggers and websites like tor.com along the lines of “I’m not selling well, must be my feminist message.” I tried reading her book, it wasn’t the reversed gender that bothered me it was the complete garbage of her writing. It was a confused convoluted mess, yet she will never accept that people don’t like her books because the writing and plot sucks not because she is a woman or whatever.

    • I have hit this so, so often. Recently, I had it from an author, whose publisher had made something of a mess, leaving the first part of her series unavailable. She sells principally to a female audience, she has a female editor, and the staffing at the publisher is more than 70% female, and it’s a left-liberal house. This mess, and her mediocre sales… are the result of discrimination against women. The idea that she or her publisher, or incompetence are responsible for any of it, anathema. Unthinkable.

      • J'ohn D'oh

        A classic example of this for me is Samuel Delany….I had no idea until this year that he was black or gay. I started in on a couple of his books many years ago (Dahlgren and Vandenberg?) and found them not to my liking and dropped him. Likewise John Varley…his books always had blurbs telling me how good they were but nothing about the actual story. I don’t read books with 20 pages of blurbs. I want a nice synopsis to draw my own coclusions from. So as consequence no John Varley and there are probably many authors out there I might enjoy but will never read due to poor jacket design anf blurb centric marketing. Publishers take note I am a $5-10 a day book buyer!

  2. There is also the well-meant but often counterproductive advice to believe in oneself in the face of evidence that such belief may not be warranted. We are awash in fortune cookie aphorisms that adjure us to never give up and anecdotes regarding how many times certain famous people faced rejection and persevered.

    Admitting that one simply doesn’t have the talent to produce a salable product therefor feels like a moral failing. It takes real courage to be able to say, “This isn’t working, I’m going to stop doing it.”

    • So true. All of us, at some point in whatever we do, have to admit. “I’m just not good at this.” That’s why we ask strangers to “give me an opinion?” If the majority say. “this isn’t very good.” We, sadly, need to admit that we aren’t good at whatever it was. If an editor/publisher is telling us “this is finest Gold,” and it *doesn’t sell, no matter how hard it’s pushed, it *is c–p.*
      Rowling had/has talent, but _publishers_ didn’t want a YA book about a young boy becoming a magician. They did/do/always will want what they *think* will sell large numbers. Just as Hollyweird *ignores* what the market flocks to, and puts out what *they want to see.* “After all, we (publishers/producers) are smarter, better educated, more ‘sophisticated’ than the masses.” Good, family friendly movies come out in limited release, make a *lot* of money, but the PTB in Hollyweird prefer c–p like Pineapple Express, similar material, because *they* like it. It can barely earn back it’s costs, but get written off on taxes. While genuinely movies come out, with little/no support and earn back *multiples* of costs, because people _want_ to see them, and the lessons are ignored. It’s like Mel Brooks’ movie, The Producers. Idiots, sometimes due to stupid tax laws, don’t want _profits_, they want *losses.* Which, since producers are paid regardless of success, absolute *C–P* movies get made, and good ones are ignored.
      In publishing, good books are unpublished, while “pretentious c–p” gets put out, solely because it meets some ridiculous “social message.” Then, we are told. “You don’t know what’s really good.” They want fine, expensive food, well made cars to drive/ride in, fancy places to live/vacation, but push _cr-p_ as great, when they wouldn’t accept the equivalent. Ancillary Justice, if it were food/drink, would be quickly _rejected_, as “awful.” Yet, we are expected to consider it as “wonderful.”

      • Chris Nelson

        Ancillary Justice is one of the litmus tests of the “truefan”. Any honesty feedback from a reader will be characterized as a deficiency of the reader by the faithful.

        As for opinions, I’m hesitant to invest any additional resources into buying or reading the genre. It’s been a large part of my life, I’m not so sure it’s a wise choice going forward when I’m conflicted about the producers and the messages. If I feel the call, there’s a library with a decent selection. Or maybe I just feel guilty when there are so many other urgent demands on my budget.

        • Well, there’s always Baen. Or send-hand bookstores, which often have a lot of older SF from before the SJW Era.

          • thewerewife

            You can find a lot of tasty SFF from the Golden Age and (especially in the case of fantasy) earlier, free for the taking at Project Gutenberg. For pittances of 1 or 2 bucks, there are superb collections for Kindle of great and influential pulp and more. All of Howard, all of Lovecraft, all of Macdonald, lots of Burroughs and Merritt and Lord Dunsany, were only the beginning for this satisfied customer. I especially recommend the 200+ and counting titles under the Wildside Press Megapack imprint. I don’t expect ever to need to buy a cover-price new fiction book ever again (exceptions made for a few favorites, of course).

        • Most of the MadGenii seem to be good reads as well…

        • Anon123

          The new “Big Three” are Scalzi, Hurley and Leckie, if you were to believe the Internet hype machine.

      • The trick is to get enough brutal truths to _accurately_ self-judge one’s own skills at something. With writing, that can be nearly impossible. There are so many sub genres each with their own set of readers’ expectations that the readers themselves don’t consciously recognize that opinions from people who don’t read that sub genre will think your story stinks, even though it’s excellent in another.

        Sometimes books flop because they are coming to the attention of the wrong readers. Advertising–those Amazon categories and tags–can make or break a book.

        The good thing about Indie, is that you can change them and try to find the readership that will love them.

      • Anonymous Coward

        I’d like to politely disagree. I believe that the motivation for making crap “message” movies is simply virtue signalling – a way to get pats on the back at Hollywood cocktail parties. Tax losses and taxpayer-funded credits are just the way films made in Smug-o-Vision get subsidized by the Little People ™. As Instapundit says ‘Repeal the Hollywood tax cuts’.

  3. I have never understood why some writers are convinced stories are rejected and sales suffer based on religion, race, sex, and sexual preference. Unless you’re famous, no one knows you when they pick up your book, and text doesn’t convey personal details unless you put it there. As you wrote, pick a pseudonym, go indie, and see what happens.

    The big question is like the chorus of The Gambler: knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. And blessed are those who can walk away from writing whenever they feel like it.

    • Yeah, I always wondered that myself.

    • I think in some cases this is projection. They choose on the basis of sex/skin color/ orientation /message — and just don’t get that that is not what Jane or Joe Average does. That was certainly true of me as younger fellow. I got several authors the wrong way around – Tracy was female name as far as I was concerned, and Andre a male one. I didn’t care, any more than than I did about Stephen Barnes’s skin color. So many of my reader friends tell me that it never occurred to them to care either — so I suspect some of this is bigots assuming all others are bigots too.

  4. What is sad are the people who will hate your book because it did not send the Politically Correct message. These people exist on only one side of the political divide, which I have personally witnessed.

    You can actually follow these reviewers around, and it becomes obvious after a while that they don’t even read the books that they are panning.

    But the truth is, if you can write a good story, and you write for an under-served market, you will have good sales. However you need to have a thick skin, those markets are under-served because people ‘better’ than you have decreed that it must be so. And they will come after you and attack you.

    • What is slowly developing is the reaction to this – where people on the other side of the divide will start to do likewise: reject left wing message and authors — because they’re tired of being cast as the villains, because it obvious the author and their publisher despise them. Honestly having fostered and nurtured this sort of discrimination is going to bite them in the ass really hard.

      • I suspect this is already happening in other entertainment venues; performers, movie-makers, and television producers who have been blatant in their contempt for Joe and Jane Average conservative-flyover country American are slowly and quietly being dropped from consideration when it comes to spending on entertainment. Long is the list of entertainers whom I have been quietly boycotting over the last few years. I suspect a lot of other sort-of-conservative, traditional Americans have been likewise quietly preferring to spend those dollars elsewhere. Certain performers, producers and movie-makers will likely never figure out why their popularity tanked … although, bless their hearts, the Dixie Chicks probably did.

      • As Chief Justice Roberts wrote: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

        The way to stop losing readers and fans who’re tired of being typecast and demonized is to stop typecasting and demonizing them. Sadly, I doubt many editors, authors, fans, or houses will ever stop to meditate upon this simple and profound truth. Like many things in life, it’s simple, but not easy. It also doesn’t feel nearly as warm and fuzzy to admit that you’re wrong, and that you are, in fact, merely self-righteous, not in the right or in the righteous among the nations.

  5. I talked to someone last year about this and their assertion that the reason they weren’t getting published was because of their politics made me laugh. Yes, I’m sure being a left wing, liberal, environmentalist, feminist, atheist has hurt you with publishers. Who are (generally speaking) left wing, liberal, environmentalist, feminist, atheists themselves.
    Though, to be fair, it could be that those positions are hurting her but not in the way she thinks, but in that she has to compete for attention with all of the other left wing, liberal, environmentalist, feminist, atheist writers out there for attention and it’s hard to stand out from the madding crowd when all of your positions are in line with said madding crowd.
    The publishers aren’t discriminating against her because of her positions, but it is possible that the possible audience is discriminating against writers like her because of those positions. I can read anything by anyone of any political ideology as long as the story is good up to one little point. And that’s if I think the author hates people like me (judging purely by what I read in the book, because if I judged based on the words of writers like that have said on their blogs and facebook page I would have very little left to read) and if that’s the case I’m not going to give them my money to tell me how much I suck.
    Basically, if you have nothing original to say you’d better say what you have to say in the best words they can possibly be said in order to stand out from the crowd. But if you’re original? Different? Stand out?
    Then you too can be Larry Correia.
    And I use Larry as my example because MHI is not the best WRITTEN book I’ve read, but it has an originality in tone and perspective that made it unique. It also had the spark, the one which tells you the writer has the ‘IT’ factor. But would it have stood out from the crowd without the different perspective of the author? No, and that spark might never have gotten noticed.
    To clarify, by the time Hard Magic came out it was clear Larry had learned the craft and was also an excellent writer in addition to having that spark.

    • Christopher M. Chupik

      Yup. You can’t fake “it”. Bookshelves are full of novels that try, and fail.

    • A comment from someone who’s been tempted by the dark aspect of off-putting blame. It’s a seductive thing to invent reasons for everything in the world except that your work stinks. In my case it’s conservative/religious views that crop up without intending to be a “message” story. It’s soooo tempting to say a story was rejected because of certain ideas. For writers who’ve made their bones elsewhere, there’s a “maybe.” For the rest of us the most likely reason is that the story sucked.

      It’s very counter-productive in that the unspoken assumption is that the work is salable, and there’s no reason to improve. Very detrimental. Knowing you write terrible fiction stinks, but realizing it at least means you can try to improve. Whether or one one can is another issue.

    • No the publishers surely aren’t (but as you say, she’s just like another 50 they had today.) It’s sadly possible that readers — who find shelf after shelf of her type of book, and little else, are giving up on on ALL of them – without finding Larry Correia. Or me 🙂

      • Draven

        I hadn’t bought or read a new SF book in years until a friend referred me to A Hymn Before Battle on the Baen Free Library.

  6. Reblogged this on The Arts Mechanical and commented:
    Once the book is done the hard part starts. Finding the readers. Sometimes it works out, but all too frequently, it’s a long slog. The ting you remember is not to cheat the reader because then it’s over.

  7. Christopher M. Chupik

    I can’t be the only person who read this title and thought: “As God is my witness, I thought this book would fly.”

  8. Pingback: Instapundit » Blog Archive » STOP LOOKING FOR A SAFE BLAME: It didn’t fly….

  9. There are of course huge benefits in being able to trust and in being trustable…

    Cf. Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation

  10. ART BROGDEN

    Then there are the authors, who, as time goes by increasingly let their political leanings intrude into otherwise perfectly good plot lines. Familiar characters begin to lecture/hector the reader. Great series begin to crash and burn because the writer has decided to introduce their own political narrative. Nothing intrinsictly wrong with that, just don’t act surprised when readership falls off. Sorry you misinterpreted our level of enlightenment, we came for the story, not the seminar. PS. I’m talking to you Mr. Sterling et al