Author marketplace abundance theory

A few days ago I stumbled across some commentary — from a politically progressive, award-winning fantasy author — wherein said author somewhat viciously lamented the “fact” that other authors were actively wishing (and working!) for the award-winner to be kept out of the marketplace.

I smiled, not because the statement was true — it’s not — but because the statement reflected an all too common false-dichotomy paradigm that is prevalent in authorial circles.

Going beyond the old saw that award-winners covet money, and money-makers covet awards, I think it’s worth pointing out (for the umpteenth time) that the marketplace is not a zero-sum game. I know it’s very easy to believe that the marketplace is a zero-sum game. If you have an apple pie on the holiday feast table, when the last slice of that apple pie has been taken, there is no more apple pie. It’s gone. That’s just common sense. You either get to have a piece of the pie, or you don’t.

But readers are not slices of pie. When one author “takes” a reader, that reader does not vanish from the stream of commerce. (S)he is still there. And very probably going to be buying other books. Because (s)he is not satisfied enjoying a single story, by a single author. Most people who read for recreation, have a range of favorite author(s) and genre(s). As with their cars — which always have to be tanked up — recreational readers have to “tank up” on books. In an average lifetime, a single recreational reader may devour thousands of volumes by hundreds of different writers. And there are millions of recreational readers, with more being added to the world every year. There has never been a better time for more authors to be supplying more readers with more enjoyment.

Yet, the “finite pie” perspective persists. Why?

First, I think there is an undying and (completely superstitious) notion among authors, that what’s popular necessarily tamps down or shoves out what’s good. For any and all definitions of both “popular” and “good.”

Second, artists of all stripes tend to be competitive by nature. Writers are no different from anyone else on the artist spectrum. Even those writers who actively work to keep and foster a generous attitude — in their own lives, and in the lives of others — are aware of the fact that writers exist on a sloping surface. In terms of readership. In terms of monetary success. In terms of critical acclaim and notoriety.

Third, many people thrive when they believe there is an “againstness” working in their lives. Human beings were created (or evolved, if you prefer) in an environment of entropy. By the dust of thy brow, thou shalt earn thy daily bread. The marketplace is vast, and uneven. It’s easy to look at the whole thing, and assume it’s a hostile force to be reckoned with.

Fourth, people also want to prove they’re good enough. That they’ve got what it takes. That they deserve to stand among those who are above. Which connotes that there are people — the majority — who are below.

All of which creates the false impression that authors are jammed together shoulder-to-shoulder, jostling and scuffling for their share of the take, and if you’ve got more and somebody else has got less, that’s just because you’re better at competing. You’re the superior artist. Or, in the eyes of the person with less, you’ve benefited from unfair advantages. You’re the poorer artist, who simply has superior connections, or who rode the “popular” wave, versus what’s obviously “good.” And so forth.

I would like to place in your minds, this simple thought: everything above is bunk.

Your peers are not taking away all the pie. In fact, pie is exactly the wrong way to look at it. It’s more akin to being a catch-and-release fisherman. The marketplace is a huge reservoir. In it swim a boundless variety of beautiful, hungry fish. You have your pole and your tackle — your skillset as a storyteller — and your job is to cast out into the water again, and again, and again. Catching as many fish as you can. All along the shore, are countless other anglers just like yourself. But instead of tossing their fish into a creel, they’re putting the fish back into the water as rapidly as they’re taken out of the water. A fish that bites on the lure of the fisherman fifty yards east of you, is as likely to bite on your lure too. And you promptly throw the fish back, which then swims fifty yards west, to bite on the lure of still another fisherman. And so on.

A voracious fish might chomp on many lures in a short span of time. Slower fish will be pickier and/or not as active. The point being: nobody is ever going to run out of fish. Your only real obstacle, is figuring out which lure(s) are working on any given day. Because not all lures work on all kinds of sport fish, in the same season. Be they pike, or muskies, or bass, or trout. Pick your lane. Hone your skills. Get good at knowing what the trout are chasing, and when. Then, if you’re ambitious, develop an additional skillset for a different type of fish. Nothing says you have to fish for only one kind. Knowing how to catch one type, usually gives you a head start on knowing how to catch another.

And again, nobody — no angler — is ever going to run out of fish. Readers don’t “belong” to any single author, and the marketplace doesn’t either. Readers swim freely throughout, and you’ve got a near endless number of chances to hook somebody on your latest book, or story. At no point is the reservoir ever “used up.”

Now, this is not a perfect analogy.

But it’s a helluva lot better than the finite pie. Right?

It’s truer, too.


  1. Good theory.
    There was a certain time in my life when my children were young and the science fiction had gotten dreary when I didn’t read a lot. Then I happened across Bujold. I started reading a lot again, and not just her. You could say she got me back into the swim of things.

  2. I think I can see a difference between us, and them- we’re looking at a whole different set of win conditions.
    To us, being successful in the market is reward enough.

    To them, successful mean winning the right awards, and garnering critical praise. And those are very limited indeed- there’s only so many Hugo award slots to go around, after all. To them, awards are the difference between being an artiste, and being a vulgar provider of pulp to the great unwashed.
    This awards focus is what led to the puppy kicker reaction- without it, the usual suspects are pretty much doomed. All they know how to write is literary tinted award bait.

  3. I dearly hoped I would win a certain regional history book award. I had a great book, told a new story, with good illustrations, and the right people liked it. BUT I was up against THE definitive book about a certain Indian War, a book written by the only person who knows enough about the area to have done the book, someone who had been working decades instead of my years, and the book will be the reference volume for at least the next 25 years, if not longer. So he won. I’m glad he did – he more than earned it, and it is a fantastic book. But it still stung a little. So I guess I need to find a publisher for the next history book, and hope that gent isn’t planning a second volume. πŸ™‚

    1. Just keep in mind that someone who picks up the book because it won an award, and likes it, will be keeping an eye out for other well written local history books.

      1. Indeed, and I believe that the print run sold out. Which was great, even if I could not get local bookstores and the main regional museum to sell it (“the print run was too small.”)

  4. Brad, you’re forgetting that CHORFs don’t sell to _people_. They sell to school libraries and the like, chosen for their goodthought messaging.

    And _that_ pie is quite finite indeed.

  5. Maybe I just have the good sense to associate with a better class of author, but what I have seen in the SF/F community is a great deal of authors supporting and promoting each other. Here on MGC, certainly, but also in other writers circles on a variety of social media platforms. As a reader I have found a lot of good books by checking what the authors that I like are talking about.

    1. Same here – with the one official membership-dues-paid author organization that I belong to: The Texas Organization of Authors, Alan, who runs it, is doing an absolutely heroic amount of work, in getting attention paid to local authors, in finding events and venues for us to participate in – and honestly, the other TAA members that I know (and yes, I know quite a few in local meatspace because we are participating in events that Alan has either played a part in organizing, or just letting us know of the opportunity.) We are all supportive of each other, across genres and focus.

  6. Time to play Devil’s Advocate. We’re not competing for readers, but we may be competing for slots.

    Analog only has room for, say, six novellas a year. Maybe twelve novelettes. Those of us who are submitting long works there are, at some level, competing with each other. (But I still love ya, Brother Brad!)

    And Asimov’s only has so many pages. And F&SF, and IGMS, and… There are a finite number of markets, with a finite number of pages. You have to be good enough to land in those pages; but beyond that level of good enough, sometimes it comes down to “If we print this, we won’t print that.”

    The same is also true of publishers, especially the big ones. They only have so many slots in their calendar per month, per year. When one author gets one of those slots, another doesn’t.

    Today, that scarcity is not as extreme as it once was. We have self-publishing as an option. We have a lot of small presses (though I don’t know how that number compares historically). We can launch our own magazines, publish our own books.

    But a lot of authors aren’t entrepreneurial. They want to write and have someone else publish. For them — and by “them”, I also mean me, since I’ve only dabbled in self-publishing — the limited number of slots means they are in competition at some level.

      1. Yep. Both Brad and I are regulars at Analog. But starting next year, they’re both switching to bimonthly.

  7. “… winning the right awards…” Amusingly, given the Sad Puppy debate, this year’s Hugo went to a milSF/superhero novel. Yes, the The Fifth Season is superhero/MilSF. The Mil has to deal with the available “technology”, while the superheroes are in the vicinity of silver-age Superboy, but it is milSF/superhero. Curiously, its advocates tended to dodge around its subgenre, not to mention its appallingly bad upper-level writing decisions.

    Readers not fond of the activities of the Sad Puppy opponets should thank them for giving the Hugo to a MilSF novel.

  8. Oh, Brad, you’re just mansplaining this to us because you used your inherent white male privilege to steal your slot in the SF/F community from some poor POC who will have to rely on Patreon to make ends meet. πŸ˜‰

  9. Along with Martin L. Shoemaker, I’m also going to disagree slightly with your premise. Because yes, there are a huge number of fish (readers) out there, but each individual fish only has so much room in its stomach (budget) every fishing season (month). If I’ve already spent $20 on books this month, I’m going to have to wait until next month to buy your brand-new book, as interesting as it might sound. So the “authors competing for a share of a finite pie” perspective is, somewhat, correct, although the pie is FAR larger than most people ever account for, so it’s almost infinite. But not quite, and economic recessions can put a major squeeze on it. As people have said in other Mad Genius posts, authors are competing for the readers’ entertainment money. When it’s a choice between reading books and paying the electric bill, only the truly dedicated readers will skip on the electric bill to keep buying books. So there will be times when a reader buying someone else’s book means they don’t buy your book. (This month, at least — but if they wanted to buy it but couldn’t afford it this month, it probably went on their to-buy-sometime-soon list and you’ll make that sale eventually.)

    Your larger point, though (that nobody is going to run out of fish) is correct. There will be seasons when the fish don’t seem as hungry as other seasons, but that’s temporary. The hunger is still there, they’re just suppressing it. But once the economy expands, the hungry fish will be trying to eat more than usual to make up for the lean months.

    And if the pie were truly finite and small, then Larry Correia’s strategy of doing Book Bombs, promoting other authors to his readership, would be working against his own interests. So clearly, he couldn’t possibly have enough money to buy… a mountain… or anything… (Insert dramatic pause for realization) Oh, darn, another beautiful* theory ruined by reality.

    * Not really. The “finite pie” theory is anything but beautiful, as it leads to seeing all economic interaction as a crab bucket.

  10. Awards get you eyes on your work. If the award is sufficiently prestigious.

    Many books that win awards are unreadable – they are too far out there, too experimental, not enough pro-reader – but they get bought anyway (if not read).

    But you can’t even get into the fishing boat if the award isn’t even open to indies. So they keep fishing in a tiny limited hole in the mud near the ocean, and the fish from the great sea nearby don’t even get noticed.

    I’m not talking SFF only, but I stopped reading a lot of SF when it went weird on me, and the experimental stuff got the slots and the awards.

    And I tried to submit to a couple of awards I thought my work would be suited for – only to find they didn’t take indies.

  11. Umm . . . I’m going to have to disagree with some of this. Per capita entertainment dollars are a finite resource. That’s why book price matters.

    On indicator of the state of things is that it’s a buyer’s market. Casual observation indicates that it’s a buyer’s market. If it wasn’t editors would give critiques on each manuscript, because the submission/publication ratio would be high and it paid to cultivate authors. They don’t. They don’t have to cultivate authors; they have plenty of manuscripts in the slush pile. In other words, a classic buyer’s market.

    Ponds get fished out.

    That’s why we have to hone our craft. What passed muster in earlier days doesn’t cut it now. Yes, there’s probably more manuscripts submitted now than in the days of typewriters, but even so, that has the earmarks of a smaller market.

    Does this mean I begrudge award winners? Not at all. It does amuse me that certain award winners and publishers say they support diversity, but they don’t restrict their sales to give room for new voices in the publication slot and thus encourage what they claim to support. Since most of them are with traditional publishers who are playing games with pricing, that’s already limiting buyers, anyway. Indies, who are not limited by slots and can set prices in a reasonable range, are in a better position than traditional publication.

    That doesn’t mean I resent other Indie authors, either. That’s because each of us has an equal chance. We succeed or fail based on our own efforts and abilities. If Author X is a better writer than Author Y, then why should Author Y feel put out? True, Author X might make less because of the number of writers of the same quality, but he has the same odds of earning the money that’s out there.

    Funny thing about free markets: If enough people feel like they can make money elsewhere, they’ll do it. So unless reading for entertainment completely goes away, any glut is only temporary. At worst it should decline to some point and remain level.

  12. Unfortunately what can happen is that it is possible to poison the lake or condition the fish (catch and release) to avoid certain kinds of bait. The unfortunate part is that the fish, not being too bright, are not real good at differentiating between good and bad baits that are similar enough. Then you end up with all the bass fishermen seeing the catch rate go down. This can look much like a shrinking pool. Can’t be that their bait is causing the problem since they use only the finest free-range certified bait.

  13. Amazon has “other customers also bought this” links — that shows that they believe in an expanding pie.

    My brother’s book The Sculpted Ship sold very well this weekend, even better than with the Hoytlanche; and all we can figure is that it was the “also bought” links.

  14. The problem with this analogy is that around 40% of the reading audience is ether underserved or not being served at all. When these people figure out what been done, that they have a choice… they walk away from the fake and watered down sff creators and they don’t come back.

    The industry’s applecart is in the process of being upset. It doesn’t surprise me at all that they feel like a bunch of scrappy outsiders are busting in and shaking them down for their lunch money. Because that’s exactly what’s happening.

    They wouldn’t have their position at all if they were able to conceive of another way. So yes… from their vantage point, the pie really is shrinking.

    1. There is a large number of people that thought “man, I really love me some science fiction and fantasy.” Over the past three decades or so, they dipped into the top tier magazines, said “nothing to see here”, and then went and played video games or tabletop rpgs instead of reading.

      Forty percent is the number of people that the media narrative has declared to be irredeemable sexist racist homophobes. It’s no accident that the exceedingly moderate Sad Puppies were tarred with that brush. It also no accident that shows like Vikings, Flash, and Supergirl are completely unwatchable. They are vehicles for the exact same narrative you see in Time, on CNN, The New York Times, etc.

      If you want undiluted heroism and romance, you pretty well have to go back to before 1940 and read a bunch of stuff that nobody is talking about. The stuff was synonymous sff in the seventies but the sff encyclopaedias were subsequently rewritten to downplay, erase, or smear. The literary strain of sff exemplified in works like The Man in High Castle is essentially a repudiation of traditional Western ideals. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lord Dunsany both are in the same camp as the author of Beowulf. The literary set is at war with that camp.

      So yes… when ordinary people go looking for sff… they tend to think it doesn’t exist anymore. And they’re largely correct.

      1. Don’t hold back! Tell us what you really think, Jeffro….

        Ironically, Dunsany was pretty far out himself at the time he started writing; but he is certainly on the side of poetry and fiction as a binder, not a divider.

        1. Dunsany is an interesting case as he defined fantasy for over half a century. He tales were more explicitly Christian than either Narnia or Middle Earth. Science fiction grandmasters like Poul Anderson and C. L. Moore worked in more or less the same spirit.

          The living author whose work most resembles these classic authors…? John C. Wright. “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” would have fit right in with Fifty-One Tales.

      2. Actually, Supergirl pretty much got a (metaphorical) slap in the face recently when she was trying to push that kind of line, with respect to attitudes towards aliens.

      3. I was reading a short story lately, and the main character, a widow portrayed as a strong woman (?) loses her son and daughter, the daughter turned into the monsters that killed the son, the widow is rescued by her brother, the lord of a city, taken care of by her sister in law who has a new baby… And the men who fall to the attacking monsters in turn become monsters, a rather zombie-apocalypse scenario. Long story short, when the sister in law (with baby, the heir to everything that used to be the widow’s son’s domain) tries to help her flee the now besieged city, the widow decides to freaking set the ship they were going to flee on on fire – after making sure her sister in law and infant nephew were onboard first, making note of how horrified the sister-in-law was looking up at her, while clutching the helpless babe to her, then turning to go to her children-turned-into-monsters presumably to join them in monsterhood, thinking that the world takes everything from you eventually.

        There was NO point to the story which still has me angry to this day (I read it two days ago), and I hated the protag who we were supposed to somehow feel sorry for or side with. She was arrogant and self-centered beyond belief – claiming she would happily sacrifice the whole city, in order to try save her daughter, who was already lost.

        I would’ve hurled the book, except it was an ebook, and so far about a third of the stories are grey goo, a third are tolerable reads, and there are some good stories.

        Then I saw this video that a friend linked to me

        HUGE contrast to the actions of the parents involved; and the latter is uplifting even though it is a sad story.

        1. Thanks. This verbalizes something I’ve struggled to explain to some people. A ‘happy ending’ isn’t necessarily fluff. It’s right. It fits the story. And it offers hope, not perfection not rainbows and unicorns. It’s nihilism being portrayed as ‘realism’ that ticks me off not sad stories.

          1. Yeah. One of the manga I recently finished reading was Your Lie You Told In April – it’s a manga about teenagers doing classical music recitals, mind you – and the main character has some very huge trauma-related issues about music. I cried when the story was starting to reach the end, and for an hour after I finished reading it, and would find tears on my cheeks for a while afterward whenever I remembered the ending, but while it’s an incredibly sad story, there’s so much love and hope in the end that it’s the kind of sadness which makes you smile through your tears anyway.

            It’s nihilism being portrayed as β€˜realism’ that ticks me off not sad stories.

            And people wonder why I prefer manga. For a while I couldn’t find stories I liked and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, and I realized it was because the stories were generally depressing in tone.

            I’ve found more stories that I enjoy in Japanese fiction (though, I am aware that grey goo tends to happen there too; those stories tend to be dumped just as much.)

      4. jeffro, pray tell, what’s so wrong with both The Flash & Supergirl? Especially since both as as heroic as they’ve always been? The girl power thing’s been eased up this season, BTW, so that shouldn’t even be a factor anymore.

        As for The Man In The High Castle, that novel’s a bulwark of SF-why all the hate? It’s just exploring an alternate history.

        1. I’m loving High Castle. I re-read the book after the first season, and have to say I like the show better. I usually don’t say that, but I’m glad this time because the show is longer.

        2. You just reduced this:

          “The literary strain of sff exemplified in works like The Man in High Castle is essentially a repudiation of traditional Western ideals.”

          To “hate.”

          You know, I get that I look like I’m really out there to people, but you really need to up your game if you want to talk about this stuff.

  15. I think Peter is now starting a ‘koi’ pond… One note as an old fisherman, changing ‘lures’ is necessary depending on the ‘water’ conditions… Having a different lure or two is all for the better. And always remember, some Benjamins are better than no Benjamins…

  16. Sadly, namecalling is continuing to degenerate from what Jeffro describes. File 770 on 12/11 reported on a claim whose location has changed that the Sad Puppies are guided by a Neo-Nazi.

    I recently finished and when appropriate will describe a truly badly written SF novel that would surely chase most first-time readers away from SF, a novel that has achieved critical acclaim.

    1. yes, and they casually throw around such accusations without considering whether or not such remarks might be actionable.

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