Parasite load

“So nat’ralists observe, a flea

Has smaller fleas that on him prey;

And these have smaller fleas to bite ’em.”

Jonathan Swift, On Poetry: A Rhapsody

We’re all a cheerful heaving mass of parasites.  Parasites on parasites at times. A delightful thought, one of the joys of having a biologist write about writing…

Some of these parasites do no real harm – we can survive them, although we might do better without them. Some of course, do harm. They can maim, hobble, weaken and indeed kill. There are tales of cows being killed by mosquitos, by sheer blood-loss (not, thank heavens where I live). Other parasites stray a little… or even quite a lot into the area of commensualism, and right through to outright symbiosis.

It might, for example be said that the male anglerfish particularly in the deep-sea ceratiidae (the sea devils) is perfect example of parasitism that is essential to the survival… not of the host but the host’s products – well, offspring. Genes.

You see out in the deep blue desert – well, ocean, but it is de facto rather like a desert in that food is sparse and scattered (although there is plenty of water) – but it’s nutrient poor, deep and cold. The possibility of finding prey is small, and find sex when you need to breed, well, let’s put it this way, you’d have more luck finding a nudist colony in Riyadh. So the sea devil females have a way around this. They keep one… well I was going to handy, but it more like hanging around their butts.

Now, as I said food is scarce, and taking someone for dinner down there is well, usually digestive, for at least one. If you have ever seen an anglerfish you’d know they are like banks – a little dangly ‘bait’ on the end of the illicium – held just above a vast mouth full of evil teeth to make sure dinner doesn’t leave undigested. The males are more like politicians, they can somehow – despite having lousy noses or eyes or anything else except testes, find females in watery waste. Perhaps there is a sea-devil pub.

Once they find a female… they bite her. This may be just as well as she’s all too well equipped to bite them, and they’re small and feeble compared to her. Females need to be big to accommodate a lot of relatively large eggs – males do not.

And at this point things get really, really weird… as he bites and then releases an enzyme that digests the skin on his mouth, and her body, where he has bitten… and the ‘wound’ heals up with the male and female joined in sense humans can never experience. The male and female join at the tissue level, and share blood-vessels.

He gets what he needs to live directly from her bloodstream. The bits he no longer need atrophy. He’s there to be sperm when she needs it. Sometimes as many as eight males can be found like ticks that have actually grown into the host (and you see why biologists look at arts graduate sf writers blathering about ‘non-binary sex’ with amusement.).

I suppose too many would kill her, but it is a system that works, despite the fact that the parasitic males draw all their nourishment, and indeed oxygen from the host. Without them, the species would die. With them, individuals may.

It has parallels in our lives (and no I don’t just mean the waste of space who does little more than father children) and of course in the writing world.

Most of life involves ‘carrying’ a ‘freeloading parasite’ load which may do you (or at least humans in general) some good – or not. There’s a fine line between the benefits (if they exist) and the sheer cost of carrying this load. Governments (national and local) and bureaucrats with their slew of petty rules and associated costs and taxes are good example. Yes, they might protect you from being eaten, but they’ll make up for it by devouring much of your subsistence without doing much positive, most of the time. Still, rather like the male anglerfish, they’re supposed to be there when you need them.

In writing there is some difference of opinion as to who the degenerate freeloaders are. From the point of view of agents, traditional publishers, and at least some of retail, we are. We’re interchangeable widgets, sucking their blood and giving precious little in exchange. Without them, we are nothing, and while they need us as a group, as individuals we’re worthless, instantly exchangeable if we want too much of their precious lifeblood for doing the trivia we do. After all, any fool can write books. Look at Freer for example… It’s one point of view.

As with so much of writing, the point of view makes quite a difference, as I for one am reluctant to see myself as an exchangeable widget. However, while I may want and benefit some – or all – of the services that agents, Trad publishers, and retail provide (almost as an afterthought it seems at times) – I can do without them. Some writers can do very well without them, selling directly. You can certainly cut some of them, and benefit a lot from carrying less of a parasite load, and simply do what they do yourself, or contract it out for less. The agents, traditional publishers and retailers can do without me, but they cannot do without writers.

It then becomes – for the writer, anyway, an equation of can he survive and have his work thrive alone in the deep blue sea of making a living from writing, or does he need all, or some of the ‘parasites’ so they’re there at the right time, so his work does not fail to find readers. That equation varies from writer to writer. Honestly, I believe if you can, you’re wise to outsource proofing. Unless you’re a wiz at covers or the cost cannot be met, well, they’re your display. If you can afford – and if you can find a good structural editor, take this opportunity with both hands. They can turn a mediocre or even bad book into something great, just by finding where and how to tweak it. This is difficult, because most Trad publishing houses don’t have them either. Copy editors have value, but seriously, most of them are widgets. If you find one that isn’t, hang onto them. Marketing… well IF you can do it well, great, if you will probably do it better than any publisher’s employee, even though they have the contacts etc. You will work only for you. He or she will work for the publisher – who has lots of irons in the fire. Even outsourcing here is tricky – so much marketing these days is social media.

When it comes to retail – unless you have a social media platform par excellence and/or a mailing list, retail still are ‘have to have’. That’ll cost you. But some parasite load has to be carried.

It’s always good to know what you’re carrying, and to work out if it has value relative to the cost.

Otherwise ditch the sucker.

As the anglerfish didn’t say, ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea.’

And biology is very useful for designing implausible aliens.

40 thoughts on “Parasite load

  1. Ah yes the tricky cost-benefit trade off in another skin. Or perhaps, as Toxocologists are wont to say – the dose makes the poison.

    We can all accept a few minor parasites if that it the cost of much increased money (food), but too many will of course consume all the extra at which point its time to take the medicine and clear them out.

    In the world of books it seems to me that these days the traditional agent + big N publisher model is at the parasitic overload, like the tree so festooned with ivy that the tree itself is dead or dying.

      1. Naah Kudzu isn’t the right metaphor, it’s too invasive. It doesn’t just strangle the tree it strangles the entire hillside. Trad pub doesn’t have that Mongolian horde level of rapacious conquest.

        You could possibly liken Amazon to kudzu except that Amazon is useful and kudzu just has nice purple flowers

        1. Eh, expand the metaphor to all SJW, and Kudzu applies. Though Kudzu has been made into biodiesel. (Apparently an inventive guy got invaded and decided he’d get some use out of it if he was going to HAVE to grow it.)

          1. And you can eat kudzu if you pick the leaves when they are small. It tastes like fresh spinach. Some people do react to the sap, and if you have soy allergies, skip eating kudzu.

          2. Kudzu is also edible, if I recall correctly, according to Japanese cuisine. So useful. The flowers, I remember reading, are made into a jelly that tastes sort of like grape, and kuzu starch and jelly I have seen mentioned in some Japanese recipes. I have vague recollection that there is also medicinal use but I am uncertain without looking it up. I do recall it can be used as a feed for grazing animals like goats.

            Soooo not as useless as a SJZ.

            1. Kudzu roots are edible. That’s where you get the starch and the food powder; and the Japanese and Chinese use it as a soup vegetable. Thai people eat it too. It’s supposed to be slightly sweet and very starchy. It’s also supposed to have estrogenic effects on women, like sweet potatoes/yams do.

              Chinese medicine uses the flower, root, and leaf for various purposes; and yup, they’re foodstuffs too. The trick is to keep harvesting the stuff, or to have animals that will eat it.

              Kudzu reacts with some medications, so be careful out there.

          3. You can also use it as the basis for cellulosic ethanol, but Iowa had to have it from corn…..

    1. I often think of politics as akin to the worm infestations children were once very prone to. Unpleasant, possibly dangerous, expensive to feed – but the kid didn’t know it had worms unless it examined the output end. And it appears they protected the body from many allergic reactions – not because they intend to, or did anything useful about it per se, but the body’s own ‘learning’ made it better at telling true threat from false.

  2. Copy editors have value, but seriously, most of them are widgets. If you find one that isn’t, hang onto them.

    I think you mean in a good way, not in a bad way. I’m pretty sure I can copy-edit, but do not think I’m together enough on the business side to qualify as a widget.

    1. I mean I’ve had a number of copy editors, but only one whose skills were really unusual and exceptional and who would be hard to replace with someone as good.

  3. The way I first encountered the concept:
    Big fleas have little fleas,
    upon their backs to bite em.
    Little fleas have lesser fleas,
    and so ad infinitum.
    And as to that deep blue desert, water water everywhere yet not a drop to drink. So stay hydrated in your sea adventures please.
    As to the hangers on, yes, value for value. Truthfully at this point with the industry the only real value I see in an agent is for their connection in marketing ancillary rights such as foreign print, and media options. It’s getting to the point now that trad pub only wants to consider you if you already have a proven track record as indie, which is the only situation where an author can hope to expect a half way decent contract.
    As for copy editing, that happens to be one of my talents. The trick is more in knowing what not to correct. All the authors I work with use language that lights up the MS Word spelling and grammar checker like a Christmas tree. And as an assignment in an English class their copy would be blood red with markings, but as entertainment and representations of how characters really think and communicate what they write works, and works well.
    Several writers of my acquaintance have horror stories of being assigned the “wrong” copy editor, one who insists on very proper English, or in one case who fancied herself an “expert” on the historical period the book in question was set in. Except her “knowledge” was all from contemporary movies and TV shows on the period, not actual research. That situation, in particular, did not end well.

    1. Oddly, this was my introduction to that poem:

      Big whorls have little whorls
      That feed on their velocity.
      Little whorls have lesser whorls
      And so on to viscosity.

    2. I shudder to think what a proper English only editor would do with “hoplings and pouchlings” (young not in the pouch but not old enough to be adult, and young still in the pouch. Species is sapient marsupials.)

    3. If I am paying a copy editor, what I expect them pick up is 1)continuity errors, 2)internal consistency errors (there you said he was red-haired, here black) including POV errors. 3) areas of being massively ‘unclear’ to my target audience. (you are targeting 15 year olds – they will not know what a slide rule is.) 4) Areas of grammatical awkwardness for that audience. It’s not being correct that is even remotely important – it’s that the target reader gets exactly what I am trying to say, with the effect I wished to achieve.

      I do not expect fact checking (I use experts in that field for that), spell-checking (proof reader’s role), grammar checking – it was good enough for the acquiring editor or my decision – If I want it fixed I’ll tell you so. Communication is my aim, not grammar. And do NOT try to teach me to write. Write your own book, if you don’t like mine. Don’t re-write mine the way you would like it.

      That is your job and role.

      And in 20 odd books I have had one copy editor who completely got that.

      1. Heh. Then I’m a pretty good copy-editor after all. (Though I will make notes typos. For my money the more eyes watching for the little buggers, the better.

        I think they breed in the 1s and 0s, myself.

    4. ” one case who fancied herself an “expert” on the historical period”

      I recall an incident where a copy editor tried to “correct” some of Tolkien’s extrapolations from Anglo-Saxon. He was not amused. Dude, he was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. They don’t just hire people of the street for that.

  4. Buyer’s market. There’s so many writers that agents and publishers can treat us like widgets. Since declining markets have the same effect on writers as drying ponds do to fish, agents and publishers can respond by cutting back on services and payments to writers.

    Once writers had no other place to go but the agents and publishers. Now we do. I think those who look at how much agents and publishers expect them to do and who are aware of indie are asking that since they have to do all the work, what do they need them for?

  5. My experience of agents and publishers to date is:
    1) Everybody I know who writes can’t get an agent. Some of them are winning awards.
    2) Publishers are a black hole where submissions go in and nothing comes back out. Then I get to wait a year or more, just to be able to say I gave them a fair shake before I assume rejection and move on to self-publish.

    As a craftsman or a writer, I am a producer. A publisher or an agent are -costs- to me, the producer. It’s the same as gallery space for woodworking. If I’m getting ignored by galleries, I’m very much in the position of having to do it myself. If I -can- do it myself, that damn gallery better be selling everything I can crank out as fast as I can deliver it, and they better be really nice to me too. Otherwise it’s DIY all the way, baby.

    In other words, how hard am I going to work to find some guy I have to PAY hard money to, for something I can do myself? He’s going to have to be really good at it for me to bother with him, especially given the steep hurdle to even get noticed by these guys.

    I have not heard songs of praise from people who have publishers and agents. I’ve heard they live in a one bedroom and have trouble affording cat food for the pets, because they get $5k for a finished novel.

    I am not writing a whole f-ing novel for $5k.

    1. $4250, after the Agent takes their chunk.

      Indie’s not all roses either, but at least you know the person in the mirror is where the problem lies. We’re still in the desert, and most of us are a bit short on rations, but our parasite load is low.

      1. I wouldn’t take on parasites until I was selling enough for it to be financially advantageous enough for them to take me on – and by that point I don’t think I’d be looking for parasites. Employees, maybe. Workers for hire to do specific jobs? We’ll see.

        I can’t outsource the writing – that’s my job – but I’m not doing it for other people to benefit. It takes me too long.

        OTOH, I seem to have learned enough to do ALL the jobs myself, and at my production speed, that’s good enough.

        Parasites – ugh.

        1. Alicia – it’s a trade off right now between the value of my time and the quality of the job needed. Decisions which are hard to make, as I’m careful with money (for good reason) – but for book covers my lack of skill and the time involved is a major factor.

          1. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’

            I am PROUD of my cover – I think of it as part of my story. When you buy a book from an author who does her own covers, you’re getting more than just a story.

            Of course, some of the author-created covers out there…

            Bug? Feature.

    2. Agents, and publishers are SOME people’s necessity. That’s fine by me. I think they have a niche. It’s just small and lot less well-paid than now. They haven’t got competing for business into their heads yet, and don’t want to. 5K isn’t bad for a first novel these days. More like 3K
      But you CAN do worse (and better) on your own.

      1. “5K isn’t bad for a first novel these days. More like 3K.”

        Yeah, this is what I hear. How hard am I working to convince some New York City hipster schmuck that he should deign to pay me three grand for nine months of work? A painter’s helper makes more than that.

        Really, the only reason I even talked to the publishers at all is so I can put a shiny copy of My Book into my mother’s hands, and get told I’m a clever boy. At 60 years old, that’s still a thing.

        But it’s not a thing I’m going to take on a full time job for two years, going to every f-ing publisher in the USA and Canada to make happen. I ended up going to Staples and paying $45 for printing instead, for a nice bound stack of photocopies. Time is not free, and instead of fiddling with agents telling me to p1ss off, I wrote two more books. Mom told me I was clever, job done.

        To say I find all this business end of things screwed up and annoying is to understate the case substantially. 😡 If the painting business went like that, every building in the country would be falling down.

  6. Reblogged this on The Arts Mechanical and commented:
    One thing I’ve come to realize in recent years is how the parasitical load of companies including publishing has driven out the ability of the companies to support the people that actually make them the money in the first place, the creatives and support people like editors. Frankly I wonder if this guy has an online class>

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