He who pays the piper, calls the tune

And if you’re not prepared to pay you get the Huffington Post (whose writers are not paid apparently) or me writing this: Things the writers do for their own reasons, which may well exclude pleasing you. In my case it is a feeling that I got a lot of help from a few writers early in my career, and would have loved some, earlier. On the other hand, it does mean you may have to put up with me being a boring old fart and pontificating about things I know little about. It’s that or spend money.

You see, like most things, it does really all come down to simple economics in the end. There’s no prize or praise as rich, rare and genuine for a writer as being paid for his words. It goes further than that: I can afford to spend some time writing here, because I make a bit of money off my books. And when I write those books I am well aware of who pays the piper. And that that payer… not only keeps me going, but actually keeps the whole writing industry going.

It’s quite easy to lose sight of, especially if you’re involved Traditional Publishing – all the way down the line from author, to all the employees at the publisher, and the distributor, and retailer. The same is true of Amazon, or Apple books or Kobo etc.

It all comes down to pleasing readers enough for them to spend money. And it’s not just about you and your work – one writer, no matter how good or fast doesn’t support the huge infrastructure required to get that book to the reader.

“But, but, but… what about Kindle. What about Independent self-publishing? You can do all of that yourself.”

Indeed you can. Except that for Amazon to sell books (not one book)… it needs lots of authors, selling lots to lots of different people. It draws because it is a bookstore, just as bookstore sells better than one guy with a stack of his books does at the roadside. People have a reason to go there. Yes, you personally could put you book on the internet… and that might sell IF you had a vast blog following or were famous. But realistically speaking any one author is in fact dependent on the efforts and popularity of other authors. You put in, and get back from their effort as they do from yours.

“So does that mean I have to support a bunch of worthless free-loaders?”

You are. Like it or not, you are.

The issue of course is just what sort of parasite (or near parasite) load the system carries.

Indies are pretty self-regulating with a set of feedbacks – it’s a very open and free marketplace, and realistically speaking, books people don’t enjoy won’t sell, and the reward that poor sellers get back is small and their effect (and cost) to the system, negligible.

Joe has a fresh fruit and vegetable market, you can put your produce there on display for free. Joe gets 30% of any sale and handles the cash registers and card machines, and keeps the place clean. If Joe’s only has your one bunch of spinach for sale, no one comes to buy. You don’t sell your spinach, and Joe goes out of business. If there is nothing but spinach – the market for spinach is small. If there is a variety – lots of people try it – the good stuff sells, the lousy veggies and manky fruit don’t. The people with stuff that doesn’t sell stop bothering. If most of what there is, is manky rubbish, nothing much sells and Joe goes out of business. Generally system can cope with a steady stream of new entrants who either have good veggies, or learn from those who do – or give up.

That’s Indy.

The closer to the traditional model of publishing you get, the less true that is. The market is far less open, poor sellers may still be well-rewarded, and the cost of poor sellers is high and their effect on the whole system, higher. The return on what the writer gets as ‘his share’ of what the reader pays is small – 6-10% typically. Some of that is necessary expenditure of considerable value, which the Indy would have to meet out of his own pocket. Most of it, isn’t. It is part of the parasite load, which adds no value to that author or to the reader. That can range from the extra needed to have NYC premises (my editor or proof-reader can do the job in Waikatipu just as well as NYC) to the interest on the huge advance they paid So-and-so whose book is a lemon that won’t sell. If So-and-so got paid little but sold a lot – he or she may well be subsidizing you.

This all seems pretty self-evident, no? Blind Freddy could see it. We all benefit to a greater or lesser extent from a healthy growing industry where the readers are eager to pay the pipers. Some books are going to be more popular than others, some will have a niche in which they are successful, and less affected by the rest, but everyone gains from a healthy industry – some gain a lot, some a very little. The more parasitic you are, the more important that healthy industry is. The more it is in your self-interest to nurture it, to not bleed it dry. That is… if your intellect surpasses that of a tapioca pudding.

Enter the angry feminist who is angry at herself for being angry at the fact that people aren’t angry about the things that she thinks they should be angry about (writing for Tor.com, quelle surprise). She’s counted all the things that make her angry. She’s good at that, just as she is good at finding things that don’t confirm her world view totally invisible. She counts women and minorities being under-represented (except in publishing which she writes about, and when it comes to going to college, where she is, and somehow… doesn’t she notice). Opportunities for pushing feminist and gay messages are just ignored.

Let’s view this in the light of the above – all of publishing is intertwined and to a greater or lesser extent depends on the rest. All of it depends on getting people to pay for books. Now, there are people who will pay for feminist books which tell the reader in no uncertain terms to be angry. There are people who will pay for books about socialist utopias where no one has to pay for books. There are people who would pay for books about white skinheads dragging black gays behind pickup trucks (this seems a popular masochistic vision in certain circles). People like books that reflect their social values, their wishes, their visions of the world, characters they can identify with to root for or hate. And, yes, if your market niche is small, you gain most from a healthy industry. If your niche is big enough to carry you, you may not even notice, although you would have some small benefit.

Let’s apply that weird and apparently rare stuff: logic. (It’s magic, and works, there is a finite supply of it which is why everyone needs it, and we passed peak logic some time back.)

If you want your niche interest shown to a wider audience… let’s say you like model railways, and feel all humans should share your passion, or at least as many as possible should be exposed to it: what do you do?

  1. Get angry that you’re angry with people who aren’t angry at the things you think they should be angry about? How dare they not use every opportunity to write about the wonders of model railways! Everyone needs to know how unfair and wicked non-model railway owners and admirers are.
  2. Go and ‘advise’ bookstore owners that some popular and well-selling authors don’t like model railways and tell them that they shouldn’t carry them? (said authors’ books make no derogatory comments about model railways, but you haven’t read them.). Jim Hines says that is a perfectly acceptable technique, but it’s not going to help the industry, the bookstore, or the sales of books enthused with model railways. And I suspect Jim wouldn’t find it acceptable at all, if applied to his books.
  3. Write some brilliant books which center on model railways but are so entertaining they appeal to a wider audience –which you take care not to alienate. That worked well in the past.
  4. Reward by purchase and promotion to your niche particularly books aren’t about model railways, but which have model railway owners as normal parts of society.
  5. Get real. Model Railways aren’t ever going to be life-and-death, think about them every waking minute for the vast bulk of readers, even for those who have model railways. Neutral to not actively hostile is the best you can hope for with most people, and overdoing it –especially via 1 & 2 will actively work against your desire.

Now, I’m for 3,4 &5 myself, which I am sure makes me a bad man. Probably (according to Irene Gallo) sexist, racist and homophobic, despite a complete lack of evidence to this effect. 1&2 never worked, never can and never will – because even when the gateway was 90% controlled by… railway enthusiasts, people buy what they want to buy, and don’t buy at all if they don’t like the offering. (Traditional publishing’s establishment skews to an extremely small section of the demographic. They’re mostly ‘very liberal’ AKA modern left wing, and lockstep with the doctrine of that group. In the US according to Gallup in 2011 – taking that as Democrats rather than rare Republicans who considered themselves that, that was around 6% of the US population. Traditional Publishing remains exceptionally urban (NYC, London, Sydney), and is now 70% female (with even the senior positions edging over 50% female, and the incoming staff who remain skewing heavily female – meaning, yes, in a few years’ time this is definitely an area to which feminist counters will be blind. Wages will go down, it will be the patriarchy’s fault, and nothing to do with declining sales and 10 applicants for every post.)

The trend towards allowing acquisitions to reflect the ideological position and tastes of that 6% have accelerated in the last 20 years, predictably as the book sales (in our genre too) have dived. I am sure the 6% feel that books have got better. As the book sales show… the other 94% do not agree. It’s been the tail wagging the dog, with predictable success. The 6% is over-served, the rest under-served (and the further from that 6% the more under-served, and less likely to buy the 6% choice), and because the entire industry is entwined, all of us traditionally published authors have suffered. (Even for the Baen authors who don’t fit the 6% have been slightly hurt by the bookshops that have been killed. Online sales have more than compensated, but we could have had both. Admittedly, what we’re gaining on the roundabouts, far more than cancels the tiny losses on the swings.) The other Traditional publishers either become more representative in their choices, or other publishers – Castilia as an example – will come and take over a large part of the environment, leaving them to market to people in or close to their ideological position and tastes. From 90% control to perhaps 10-30% is going to leave a lot of authors and editors out of work.

In Indy, given the feedback loops and lack of gatekeepers, I should think the angry woman would be incandescent by now. Using some more of that rare logic, it is growing, and as that, has opportunities for people any persuasion and ideology. We all benefit when there are happy readers.

Of course readers are looking for what Traditional Publishing decreed they didn’t want and couldn’t have – and a lot of offerings are still from authors imitating the 6% taste of what was being bought.

So my advice is: Don’t target an overserved part of the demographic if you can help it. Always remember who pays the piper (clue: it’s not angry people). Carrots work a lot better than sticks, especially with balky old people like me (Get off my lawn, I’m building a climbing wall there). And support other writers even if you don’t like their work or agree with their ideology. Readers lift all of us.

41 Comments

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41 responses to “He who pays the piper, calls the tune

  1. greyratt

    instead of model railways, substitute horse racing (in England), and you have Dick Francis. (mystery)

  2. There is at least one Ph.D. in describing how “the left” changed from reality oriented people like Eric Flint, to people who not only oppose capitalism, but fail to understand it.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      I think the explanation is that your premise is wrong.

      I don’t have spoons for long, so the short version is that leftism was built on magical thinking in the nineteenth century. The soviet union popularized it beyond its natural audience of fruitcakes who’d think that Six Sigma is a way to improve elementary education. The increased size meant that some of them were relatively sensible. These days, the hard headed clear eyed twenty year old isn’t going hard left to the same degree, so the replacements are more the sort who only pay attention to the book.

      This theory of mine should be false if in the future we have greater or equal fraction of leftists, as it seems to assume decreasing.

  3. Mmm.. carrots.
    And when a feedback loop is broken, one of three (two, really) things happen:
    1. Stability – but this is fragile, any disturbance will move things to 2 or 3.
    2. If you’re lucky, oscillation. And if you are not lucky…
    3. Something goes *BANG* or burns up or burns out.

    Yes, there is some oscillation even with a working feedback loop, but it’s more ‘jitter’ than wild swings.

    I suspect we are seeing a slow-motion (so far) #3 happening.

  4. Actually, the decline in market share for the big 5 publishers is almost certainly due to them overcharging for e-books and has nothing to do with the types of stories they print.

    http://fortune.com/2015/09/24/ebook-sales/

    • The decline was coming long before they started playing games with pricing.

    • If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say “I used to really like reading science fiction and fantasy, but somehow I stopped reading a few years ago…” Oh wait. I *do* have a dollar, because they buy my books! Because I’m not writing the stuff the legacy publishers want to push. 😀

      • This. Part of it was price long before there were e-books, but it had gotten to where I didn’t like much of what made publication. For a time my book buying dollar went to techno-thrillers. First, there wasn’t that much SF available, and second, what was tended to denigrate much of what I valued. Then came message fiction, and looking at the Hugos as a warning label.

      • The Other Sean

        I think there have also been a few stages of stupidity in the field leading to loss of readers. My dad stopped reading sci-fi in the mid 70’s, when so much of it got all New Age-y. I’ve met a few others who stopped reading sci-fi either temporarily or permanently during that period for similar reasons.

        I think there may have also been an intermediate stage or two between New Age craziness and the current SJW insanity. I seem to recall the 80’s as the distopia years, with a lot of post-apocalyptic, anti-corporate, and anti-nuclear stories, and a marked lack of hope. And then the stories of 90’s all seemed to be trying to hard for social relevance.

        Is my memory playing tricks or are we really on a fourth stage of reader alienation (pun unintended) in sci-fi?

        • I think you’re right. I remember the tail end of the New Age-y phase, and waaaayyy too much nuclear war/winter, post-apoc, dystopia, EOTWAWKI stuff, of which the Horseclans were about the most upbeat series I can easily remember. I drifted into classic sci-fi, and fantasy for a while until I discovered mil-sci-fi (Drake, and Sterling and Pournelle. I had a serious crush on Christian Johnny Falkenberg. Serious crush.) And I’ve been sticking mostly with indie, although nibbling trad pub from the library.

          • The Other Sean

            I remember in the 1980’s, when I was a kid mostly buying Star Trek novels, browsing the rest of science fiction and finding little of interest. I’d read the pitifully-small collection of classic sci-fi in the local and school libraries, and some of it was good, but there was so little of it, only a smidgen of Asimov and Clark. But in the early 90’s I started high school at roughly the same time as a used bookstore opened, and suddenly there was more Asimov and Clark, plus Cherryh, Drake, Lovecraft, McCaffrey, Moon, Niven, Norton, Pournelle, and Stirling. And then a giant Barnes & Noble opened, which had an enormous science fiction section. Alas, much of the new stuff was still unappealing, but there was a small trickle of good stuff, often from Baen.

            Personally, I wanted to be Falkenberg. Then I realized how much pain he’d been through early on, and thought being Prince Lysander be much better. Alas, openings in the prince business seem a bit sparse. 🙂

            • I wanted to command a hovertank. It is probably just as well for the survival of the other inmates of the high school I attended that I did not have access to a hovertank.

        • Joe in PNG

          Ponder the kid coming off of the original release of “Star Wars”, who wants some more of that swweeet SF fix, grabs something at random from the bookstore’s SF rack, and winds up with proto grey goo. It’s a good way to kill off the future fanbase. A majority of successful SF in the movies is typically pretty epic, while a majority of printed SF is grey goo.
          Now, continue the process for a few decades- is it a wonder that people get turned off to reading SF?

          • The Other Sean

            No wonder at all. When many of the stories seemed to involve humanity dying on Earth from resource exhaustion, or failing to adopt communism, and many of the rest involved corporate-dominated dystopias, it would be a wonder if readership didn’t decline.

        • TXRed: If more women had crushes on Christian Johnny and fewer on Edwward Cullen and Kylo Ren, the country would be a better place.
          (Why yes, Falkenberg is one of my fictional role models.)

    • Greg, I agree that pricing is a mistake and is costing them market share, but the decline is well documented (in PW, taking data from Bookscan, as one source, which, as it is an industry sweetheart has no reason to lie in this direction) and has been ongoing from well before e-books became commonplace. There is a space for their taste. It’s just not a very big space.

    • Kate Paulk

      Yes, the ebook overcharging is a problem. The decline has been around for a lot longer than ebooks, though: how long is it since you have seen a science fiction paperback proudly proclaim the number of copies sold?

      I have books I bought in the early 1980s with covers that say things like “Over 1 million copies sold!” Paperbacks. From authors who were not A-list SF/F authors.

      These days authors celebrate when they get more than 10k copies sold. That says sales are shrinking.

      Sarah Hoyt has plenty to say about shrinking print runs (she’s not alone in this). That says sales are shrinking.

      As far as I can tell, the only reasons the big 5 aren’t obviously in painful decline is that they can be used as tax shelters by their parent mega-corporations and their enthusiastic adoption of Hollywood accounting.

      • Kate, there’s also consolidation. It was the big six recently. And every one of those has multiple companies devoured into themselves. There is also a lot of wallpaper over the cracks. It creeps out in whispers, but things are not well, and staff-losses and imprint reductions and closure (Tor UK) are substantive. They have been cannibalizing their backlist as e-books to sustain themselves – I gather often out of contract terms, taking advantage of authors. When authors/agents push back – they settle, but on ‘keep your mouth shut’ terms. Of course pushing up e-book prices will damage that too.

        • freddie_mac

          “cannibalizing their backlist as e-books”

          This is where the Big 5’s myopia is particularly stark. Oh those backlists that many of us would scoop up by the handfuls if they were reasonably priced! How many of us would like to have portable copies of dearly loved favorites?

      • greyratt

        the last time I remember is Sir Terry, but other them him… it has been a long time.

      • TRX

        > more than 1 million

        [lengthy venture off into web-search-land…]

        Hmm. I thought someone would have a list of SF novels by sales, but Google isn’t being cooperative this morning. Perhaps someone else will be more successful.

        I did manage to find a top sales list here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books and extracted the SF titles I recognized.

        1984 – 25 million
        The Hunger Games – 23 million
        Dune – 20 milion
        A Wrinkle in Time – 14 million
        Star Wars (series) – 160 million
        Discworld (series) – 55 million
        Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – 16 million

        There are a lot more fantasy novels than SF [by my definition] on that list.

        This is a list of best-selling fiction authors in general: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_fiction_authors It lists authors with sales over 100 million copies. A number of fantasy and horror authors made it, but I didn’t recognize any SF authors.

        I was interested to note that Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey, and Karl May were well up in the list. Westerns are a niche market now, enough that it’s easy to forget how popular they were at one time.
        Westerns were serious business; Gene Roddenberry had to pitch Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the Stars” to get anyone to consider his new TV series idea…

  5. I make it my habit to encourage ALL writers who seem to be having a bad day, on Wattpad, Goodreads, wherever – because the world has already dumped on them, or they wouldn’t be unhappy – and writing about it.

    And everyone starts somewhere. They can decide just fine when to quit, if that turns out to be what they want to do.

    Is this encouraging bad writing? Probably – but what does that matter? It is not my self-imposed job to rid the world of bad writers; it is only my job to improve myself, and hope my writing is good enough for the readers I’m aiming at. And to keep learning how to market – since that seems to be the next big step. (And yes, I knew that. But you never finish the first book if you realize how much work still lies ahead. And I wanted that book finished.)

    • Bravo, Alicia, Well said. And bad writers can improve (if they choose).

      • Writers are usually among the more interesting people.

        Even if you don’t particularly like or read what a writer produces, you share the struggle of writing and publishing, and that makes us comrades in arms.

        In traditional publishing, where there are few slots in each publisher’s catalog, new writers are competition, and the ‘help’ has a sharp edge.

        In the indie world, people seem to realize the abundance model, and willingly share all sorts of useful data – I have received far more than my share.

        I’m a weird writer, so how I write, even though I blog about it, isn’t often useful to others. My payback is limited by extremely limited physical and mental energy. So encouraging where I can is something I can do.

        I’m not special – but I do believe some of these younger writers will do well, and, knowing where I was when I started, I certainly can’t tell which.

  6. Uncle Lar

    Where to begin.
    You must start with a story that appeals to a reader demographic large enough to return you an acceptable reward.
    It has to be polished to a presentable state. This involves first and beta readers, then proofing and copy editing.
    It must be packaged is such a way as to present an appealing visage to the potential purchaser. Here lies cover art and layout, catchy blurb construction, and appropriate key word linkage.
    Finally comes marketing and promotion. That reader demo has to be informed that the book of their dreams is out there and how to find it. Bring on web sites, Facebook pages, book signings, trips to conventions, and so on.
    The first point is key, without a good story you have nothing. Sure, heavy promotion can sell most anything. Once. And at substantial cost not only to the author, but to the house that foisted a steaming pile of canine feces on an unsuspecting and gullible public. Anyone have any bets as to when Hillary Clinton’s last book earns out, by the way?
    All the other things I’ve listed go to make the product more appealing, attractive, likely to be examined and hopefully acquired by a reader.
    Now some rare few writers are capable of doing it all, and some have become notoriously successful from that broad range of talents. Others have depended on traditional publishing to supply it all, of late mostly to their sad disappointment and regret.
    What I believe is keeping many tradpub or as yet unpublished potential authors from making the grand leap to indie is their perception of the magnitude of all that add on stuff. What needs to be stressed repeatedly is that all that can be easily acquired by the yard, and for not all that much. As Dave points out, much of that lion’s share that tradpub takes from the sale price goes for those ultra fancy NYC digs and other perks they’ve come to expect as their due. With indie one buys the meat and discards the fluff.
    I’ve been thinking that there is a crying need for a business that integrates the utility of traditional publishing but with a much smaller bite of the pie. I’m seeing some signs of such, but there are still legacy concerns over the association with the evil vanity press. We really do need to drive a final stake through that beast’s heart once and for all. Between indie and print on demand there is really no valid reason for it to still exist.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

      That advance that Hillary got for her book?

      It was a campaign contribution. 😈

      • Plus, it launders campaign money into personal coffers, as the campaign buys copies to give to donors as “rewards” for contributions. Campaign purchases become royalties, and given away copies are campaign expenses.

  7. Arwen

    What I don’t understand is how they sustain that level of anger all the time. Anger is exhausting! When I lose my temper, it usually goes something like this:
    1. Anger
    2. Restraining myself from committing physical violence
    3. Bursting into tears
    4. Getting a raging headache and having to lie down in a dark room

    • The perpetually outraged must be stronger than us. Or some of the rage must be worn out. Or perhaps it is like capsicums, the more you use the more you get used to it. I get angry, but I’ve found doing something (if not about that thing, about something else worthwhile. Splitting wood is good.) best. Still doesn’t always work.

      • I agree with you – it’s probably an acquired taste (a.k.a. an addiction). I suspect that extreme cases cannot get out of bed without some level of anger driving them on.

        On the plus side, they tend to be afraid of guns and physical confrontation. Which is good, because they tend to be the kind of people you wouldn’t trust with a deadly weapon.

    • Anonymous Coward

      I find the anger rather easy to understand.
      Consider that the alternative to anger is introspection and the horrible self-knowledge that may result from it.
      An unfortunate corollary to Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crap) is that the most likely cause of one’s failures is one’s own inadequacies.
      It is far more reassuring to blame Them for not getting those book sales, for not getting that raise, for not getting the supermodel dangling from one’s arm, the corner office, etc.
      ‘Righteous’ anger also provides an excuse for not treating others like human beings (no need to apply the Golden Rule when dealing with Untermenschen).

  8. TRX

    > Always remember who pays the piper (clue: it’s not angry people)

    I’ve liked some authors’ work enough to search out their web sites and blogs. Some of them are nice people, and some of them can’t seem to refrain from angry screeds against, not just large demographics, but according to their own published sales figures, the demographics who buy most of their books. And some of the demographics are ones that include me.

    I liked their stuff… but right now as a reader I have plenty of authors to choose from who don’t find it necessary to insult their readers.

    • This too. I’ve stopped buying several authors who de facto told me they hate me, wish I would die (but gimmee your money).

      • Griz

        Web pages can really backfire. I discovered Old Man’s War while walking through the library. I still think it is a great read. Then I found his blog, Whatever. I came to realize that he is a full blown SJW who denigrated people like me. I just can’t get myself to buy his books anymore. I really don’t know if his Star Trek fan fic was worth a Hugo.

        As for ebook prices. I love Weber but refuse to pay Tor $14.95 for an ebook! Sheesh!