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.