Infinite Elephant Pie

Brad’s post this weekend got me thinking, and yes I am aware that’s a very dangerous thing. I’m also aware my mind goes places that the rest of the universe prefers to avoid, you know, the ones with the big signs that read “Abandonne all hope yee who entere” (yes, the aversion to spelling is also part of these places) or “Here be dragons” (and not the nice kind).

Which, inevitably led me to the conclusion that the new world of writing is a world of infinite elephant pie.

It goes a little like this (attempts to replicate my reasoning process usually end badly. I don’t know how I do it, just that it usually works).

We, humanity as a species (yes explicitly including our homo sapiens neanderthalensis ancestors as well as the homo sapiens sapiens ones and any other homo whatever we managed to breed with along the way), are the descendants of untold generations who succeeded in a world of scarcity. Heck it’s less than a century since we started routinely producing more food than everyone in the world could eat, and less than that since we got to the point where what causes famine is political problems and not widespread crop failure.

Yes, famine still happens, but nowadays it happens for reasons like the Great Leap Forward or the Holodomor, or because rival warlords keep trampling down/burning the crops. Political idiocy, in other words. If we could solve the rather knotty distribution issues involving rapacious Great Leaders and equally rapacious corruptocrats and Unprincipled Nasty Piece-keeping troops (you have heard all the UN peacekeeper scandals, right?) stealing most of the stuff generous folk donate to those in need, there wouldn’t be anyone starving.

When it comes to books, there’s an equally impressive abundance of supply to meet the near infinite demand for entertainment that’s out there. You just have to look outside the artificial scarcity of traditional publishing.

Not that I blame trad pub for this: we have real issues with abundance. We have the scarcity-driven drive to grab All The Things and hoard them for the scarce times, and the scarcity-driven notion that bigger has to be better because there’s just so much more of it. So we naturally treat everything as if it’s part of a pie that, once eaten, is gone forever.

Except the book pie and the reader pie aren’t. They’re infinite. There are at least a billion people alive right now who can read English well enough to read a book. Those people want to be entertained (so do the rest, but I can’t help them since English is the only language I can write in). They want to be taken out of their everyday lives for a little while, no matter how fantastic those everyday lives might seem to us.

Even if what we write only appeals to half a percent of that billion, that’s still fifty million potential readers – a positively massive number of possible sales. Enough that from where we sit we might as well say the market is infinite, particularly since it’s self-renewing as new people discover our stuff. So the pie is infinite.

It’s an elephant pie because, well… elephants remember. So do readers. Piss a reader off by murdering their willing suspension of disbelief and they’ll not only never buy anything of yours again, they’ll tell everyone else they know as well. Make them happy, and you’ll get the opposite effect: they’ll be loyal to you and pimp your stories to all their friends. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get the elephant-like readers who protect you from attack and form a stampeding herd to terrorize anyone who dares criticize you… but that might be stretching the analogy a little too far.

So how do we deal with abundance?

I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect that lots of stories with lots of goodies for your readers is a decent starting point.


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48 responses to “Infinite Elephant Pie

  1. Oh, I agree! I do think that even if we end up writing something that might be niche interest, that’s okay. As long as there’s an audience whose interest aligns with the flavor of fiction one writes, then it works out. I’m not into depressingly nihilistic works; not when I’m reading for fun. There’s a reason why the gates of Hell have “Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here” – and goodness knows I’ll likely head there later on, but that’s no reason to subject myself to damnation early ya know?

    (Incidentally, I have the music of Shelter stuck in my head.)

  2. When I wrote my undergrad thesis in college, my advisor red-penciled a lot of it for being too colloquial and “entertaining.” In other words, not academic enough. That was the 1990s, more or less, and things are s-l-o-w-l-y changing. One reason why people like David McCollough, John Barry, and others do so well is because they make history fun to read, with exciting stories and fascinating characters. One of the best compliments I can get about my non-fiction is “I enjoyed this book, and I learned a lot,” emphasis on the first half of the sentence. There’s a huge history pie out there and lots of hungry readers. Ditto fiction.

    • Back in the Nineties, my parents were on a cruise and fell in with a British history prof. He was saying how horrible American academic papers had become, boring and full of jargon, and how they had to train it out of American students who came over to the UK.

      • For a long time I could tell within a few pages if I was reading British or American writing because the British were such better writers – history or science, didn’t matter. During graduate seminar one day, the professor announced “and next week’s book won the Bancroft.” The entire group, live and those tele-conferencing, groaned in unison. “What’s wrong?” One brave soul, not me, explained, “Bancroft means boring.” Ye Prof was, ahem, nonplussed.

        • Ben Yalow

          For a counterexample, on the Bancroft, I’d point to Samuel Eliot Morison, who won the Bancroft twice. His 15 volume history of the US Navy in WWII (or the one-volume version) are brilliantly written, engrossing, and highly informative (although somewhat limited by having been written before some of the cryptography was declassified). And one of his Bancrofts was for a volume in this series.

          But the writing made everything seem alive, and want to know more, as references to other people and events are sprinkled in, and lead the reader to want to know more history. For example, his description in Volume 12 of the end of the chapter on the battle of Surigao Straight:

          “Thus, when Mississippi discharged her twelve 14-inch guns at Yamashiro at a range of 19,790 yards, at 0408 October 25, 1944, she was not only giving that battleship the coup de grâce, but firing a funeral salute to a finished era of naval warfare. One can imagine the ghosts of all great admirals from Raleigh to Jellicoe standing at attention as [the] Battle Line went into oblivion, along with the Greek phalanx, the Spanish wall of pikemen, the English longbow and the row-galley tactics of Salamis and Lepanto.”

          If you know the references, it speaks to you. If you don’t, you start looking things up, and find yourself immersed in history.

          • There are some Bancrofts (not just S.E.M.) that are great – _The Minutemen and their World_ comes to mind. But we’d had a string of four or five that were killer dull.

          • Terry Sanders

            Um, the Missouri’s guns are 16-inch.

            • Yes, the Missouri‘s guns are 16-inch, but the passage in question refers to the Mississippi, BB-41, a New Mexico class battleship.

            • gumdipped

              Mississippi, not the Missouri. It is one of those quirks of history that the last big gun battle of the war was fought on the US side with the oldest battleships in the fleet, that had been relegated to shore bombardment duty in support of the Leyte Gulf landings. Several or them had been sunk at Pearl Harbor, refloated, and sent back into action. Daniel Madsen has written a book on the salvage operations entitled Resurrection.

    • Sara the Red

      heh. I had a professor who was notoriously hard on students when it came to grading research papers–but I consistently got As on them in part BECAUSE they were entertaining to read. Guess it really does depend…

      • Uncle Lar

        Pity how in so much of academia the preference is pretension over communication.

      • Knew a woman writing her PhD thesis in theater history, who wrote lovely English, but her adviser would throw it back at her because her writing wasn’t jargon-o-licious enough. Also, the advisor didn’t understand what Aristotle’s Poetics had to do with theater. So: writing so people can’t easily understand you = good; actually knowing the basis of the subject upon which you are seeking a doctorate = bad.

        She stuck it out. I’d be doing time for assault, if it were me.

        • aacid14

          What made me realize that I didn’t want to be in school after undergrad was presenting an an AIAA Aerospace Science Meeting where I could tell the difference at papers I attended between industry engineers, hypesters, and academics. The former said “here’s how we used the find”. The middle says “how we will use the find”, often exaggerating. The latter ends with ‘we need more funding’.

        • Dragonknitter

          I am halfway through my doctoral program and I am contemplating options for justifiable professorside…this post-postmodern crapola is something to behold! The lack of knowledge in combination with the abject incuriosity and crowning hubris is disturbing my natural optimism and sense of humor in horrific ways.

    • Yep – I am starting a couple of David Hackett Fischer books about episodes in the American Revolution – and they read like a novel.

      • Sara the Red

        Allan W. Eckert is also really good–he writes about early/colonial frontier America. He’s also a GINORMOUS Tecumseh fanboy…

      • Ron Chernow’s Hamilton is very readable. His Washington isn’t quite as good, but it’s still pretty good. I tried reading American Sphinx, by a different author on Jefferson, and wasn’t particularly drawn in. I think part of the problem is that he started it off almost apologetically, talking about how the Hemings probably weren’t Jefferson’s descendants and it couldn’t be proven anyway—a couple of years before it was. I don’t want apologies or outright speculation from my historians. I want someone who looks at the historical record (unlike many other such accusations, rumors about Jefferson having Sally Hemings as a mistress happened while he was alive and on many occasions, lending it more plausibility.)


        Did I mention I married a history major?

        • CACS

          I believe that Joseph Ellis, the author of American Spinx does a far better job with both his Founding Brothers and American Creation, which I have listened to in audio form several times.

          I have started American Spinx twice and have yet to finish, but that may have more to do with the circumstance of when I was attempting it than the book itself.

    • CACS

      Bruce Catton first writer in the field of history to make me realize, ‘Hey this stuff is really interesting.’ For the The Daughter it occurred in elementary school when doing research for a paper that she found Shelby Foote’s monumental history of the Civil War. Catton and Foote drew you into the history with their story telling and the quotes they cited, providing little incidents that made the history far more human, giving it real life.

      • aacid14

        It’s the human aspect of history that makes it entertaining to most people. Give numbers of men killed in the bulge and it will be crammed. Read the story of the men trapped in there and it will be remembered.

        • Exactly – which is why I write historical fiction. Making events real, in a visceral way to the casual recreational reader – that’s the way to grab the reader – make them interested in history, especially the history of this American nation. I’ve had a visceral feeling about this, almost a sense of mission about it since about 2006, We have to reclaim our history from the Zinnistas. We have to remember that our metaphorical American ancestors were hopeful, decent, hard-working people, doing their best in a world that we can just barely imagine.
          If I can help present-day readers imagine that world more clearly through riveting yarns … well, then – that’s my mission accomplished!

          • My dad was a history teacher, so I don’t think I ever thought it was boring. But sometimes it got more exciting than others.

            • I had a couple of pretty good teachers in high school, though unfortunately one of them had the most beautifully low soporific voice. When you’re one of those high school students who is chronically tired, that’s a problem. The real gem was a history professor I had in college who blazed through four centuries in a semester, had us read four novels (one of which was Anna Karenina), and actually explained the Cuban Missile Crisis to us. (Every other survey course I’d ever had was lucky if it made it to WWII.)

              He died shortly after finals—undiagnosed stomach cancer. Huge tragedy, and we still raise a glass to his memory every now and again.

    • Kate Paulk

      Ugh. Non-fiction SHOULD be entertaining. Or failing that, interesting in some other way. I don’t want my history or whatever reading like it was written by someone on the edge of dying of boredom.

  3. When I saw “Infinite Elephant Pie” my first thought was that it must be bigger than “Infinite Cow Pie” … !!

  4. Also, as they read your stuff and discover that it is better than the competition, you get more readers.
    George, who just read this year’s Hugo novel to see if it was as bad he expected..
    Nope. Worse. Even if it was military/superhero SF.

  5. Avalanches in readers who are satisfied (telling their friends) are a bit slow in getting started. Hope they eventually thunder down the mountains.

    Then along comes a review or two that IS telling their friends, and the world seems right for a while again.

    But at the beginning, you almost can’t give it away. Like Mummy with a spoonful of [insert your least favorite vegetable here], saying, “Try it! You’ll like it!” Or worse, “It’s good for you!”

    • Kate Paulk

      Yeah, it’s a slow, slow trickle until there’s enough momentum to actually get anywhere.

      • I’m in the incredibly slow trickle phase, and, since I will never be capable of writing lots of books (which many successful indies do as a way to build those trickles into roaring cataracts), a little discouraged.

        Still having fun, still writing (I hope that will never stop), but weeks go by…

  6. Uncle Lar

    Sadly, I am coming to the belief that it is nye on impossible to get readers to suggest books they’ve enjoyed to their friends. It’s almost as though today’s society no longer respects people who read so they feel a need to keep it a secret.
    Simply getting fans to post an Amazon review is like pulling teeth, an act that is relatively anonymous and costs nothing but a pittance of time.
    I try not to begrudge the plethora of authors who have flooded the indie market. I truly do wish the good ones well, but the shear number of books available is making it incredibly difficult to become noticed. To succeed at indie publishing word of mouth is essential, and getting that is as difficult as predicting where lightning will strike next.

    • So true. I’ve got fifteen things up on KDP (twelve short works, two novels and a book-length non-fiction piece) and not a single review. I’ve tried to nudge friends and family without success. I asked one friend outright whether he’d be interested in reviewing any of my stuff and got no reply. I’m hoping I didn’t offend him in spite of keeping it as low-key as possible. I honestly have no idea what I can do to get people to put those reviews up. Just writing reviews for other indie writers’ stuff and hoping for karma to bring reviews my way isn’t working.

    • TRX

      > suggest books they’ve enjoyed to their friends.

      Recommendations from *my* friends are little better than random chance…

    • Kate Paulk

      Actually, it’s more that there’s a wealth of stuff out there, and a lot of damn good free stuff, and we’re competing for people’s time and money with all of that.

  7. I think that producing a product that is markedly different from other works on the market can help with word of mouth, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into sales. I have a small but enthusiastic following, and many of my readers are quite active in promoting my work. I set out to write novels that don’t fit into existing categories, and that seems to be what my readers like about them.

    However, standing out doesn’t mean selling well. I know a number of writers who take the opposite view and write books that are deliberately crafted to fit into categories that are popular, and most of them are selling a lot more books than I am. Many readers don’t want something new and different, they know what they like and are happy sticking to it.

    So I think that it’s probably better in terms of sales to keep to the middle of the road–not in terms of mediocre quality, but in terms of writing books that fulfill a reader’s expectations. People don’t tend to make a fuss when something turns out to be what they wanted and anticipated getting. “I went into a steakhouse and got a good steak” doesn’t make as interesting a story as “I tried that oddball KIm Chee On A Stick joint last night”–but people buy a lot more steaks.

    • Kate Paulk

      It does depend on what you want from what you write. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to well-trodden ground and doing it well. There are authors doing quite nicely thank you from that.

      I’m just a bit too weird for that, so… What happen, happens.

  8. mrsizer

    This reminds me to write a review of Scales. Sigh. So much potential but one horrid problem (and so easy to fix: Search and Replace of “?” with “.” would make the book 100x better).

    • Kate Paulk

      Punctuation. It’s not optional, and it’s not a case of throwing stuff at the end of the sentence until the spellcheck stops barfing.