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.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.