It looks idyllic, doesn’t it? I know it well. I can tell you that it is so flat because the current is strong enough to rip the bottom out of the swells. There is turbulent sea breaking in 8 foot swells just outside those islands, and the wind is hiding the current lines.
I’ve spent a lot of my life in the sea or on it. It’ll probably kill me in the end, but… well, I guess it’s like the man drawn to a lover that he knows is a capricious, unfaithful and unpredictably moody and sometimes cruel… but he still loves her. It might not be smart, but it is.
Of course, after some years of loving the sea – well, if you’re still around you do learn some degree of caution, some degree of mitigation, and a lot of skill at trying to guess the ‘moods’ right.
Couple of things I’ve learned which apply quite well to the writing world: Firstly – swimming against a strong current is an exercise in futility and exhaustion. You can swim across or go with it, or hang onto a rock if you can find one. Secondly, the wind and the current tend to run in opposite directions. You can use one to survive the other – but it tends to be a very choppy experience, that could just as easily sink you.
My own sense of the mood in the writing world – which is inevitably controlled by readers (not writers, not editors, not publishers, not critics and not reviewers, contrary to their delusions of grandeur) and reflects the wider world to some extent, is that changes are happening. In a way the things we here on MGC write about are change symptoms, not the causes – we write about the self-pub revolution, the disappearing agents, the way the big six became the big five, will probably the medium-sized four, and changes in things like distribution. But if things had stayed the same, continued down the same track, none of this would have happened. The zeitgeist was ‘progressive’ – against the center, the libertarians, the conservatives. Most publishers were left wing, or hard left as a result, and de facto, their authors largely were too or at least put on a good attempt to look that way.
In my opinion the left wing zeitgeist hit apogee in about 2007 with the financial downturn. The media, the politicians, academia, the churches, and publishing continued on with yesterday’s trend – growing further from the ordinary people and how they felt. By 2016 things slipped off the plateau and began going the other way.
What has happened (and all of the symptoms feed back into the causes) is that the readers – whose buying supports the bulk of the writing industry – buying… or not. This is probably best illustrated for us in the collapse of the traditional sf/fantasy sales (I’ve graphed this for you before) or as recently illustrated Marvel admitting their direction – for more ‘diversity’ and ‘social justice’ in comics had failed.
Now the important thing about these sales dives is that… nobody (or, to paraphrase the HH Guide, nobody important) reporting these figures wants to admit the direction is wrong, that there are problems. They liked, approved and supported the direction that sf and fantasy and indeed comics were taking. If there was a way to hide these declines, they would. The fact that this sort of data is creeping out means that financial problems, even bankruptcy, are looming, and there are no other choices. When some Jackass says ‘Oh they’re wrong, I luv Burkawoman, and Miz Marvel and Black Panther have both been nominated for Hugo Awards.’ What that says is that Jackass and the Hugos are out of touch with the buying public. There is a market for this, just as there is a market for the taste of the Hugo voters. It’s just 95 pound supply trying to fit in 5 pound demand bag.
Their idea was they could change demand…
It seems not.
And there are two alternatives here: you either please that buying public enough to earn a living, or… well, you know what vanity publishing is? When you get ‘recognition’ and social status (which includes polishing your resume among the kind of people who also find this important – Arts Departments at Colleges- a transfer from buggy whip manufacture to buggy horse blinker manufacture, IMO) and mickey mouse awards and prizes that no-one outside the tiny clique that award them to each other gives a damn about, or even know exists… instead of pay which you can live on. Any real profit goes to the publisher, who gets de facto free labor, subsidized by the author’s day job, or their spouse, or trust fund. It’s just a question of time before the author is asked to chip in for the ‘prestigious Editor’ (I’ve already seen this ridiculous model happen here in Oz via one of GoFundme type of fundraising – to get a ‘prestigious award winning editor’ –who had crashed three magazines, for an anthology. It’ll spread, mark my words)
Given that the current is running counter to the direction traditional publishing and much of the establishment direction (and I think we’re looking at a 20-50 year trend, as that seems the historical norm) the issue for the working writer particularly those invested in the old system is ‘how best do I survive?’ For the rest of us –it could mean rough water ahead too, because the publishing establishment will not want to drown alone. However, we’re better off, as we haven’t had that support in the past.
There’s no doubt that at least some parts of traditional publishing will happily continue down the plug-hole and take their authors with them. It’s – historically – been a good bet, turning hard left, killing the company, and the editors failing upward. This – given the shrinking number of places to fail to –may not be viable for them in future. It’s probable that some at least will, in time, learn, just as Marvel appears to be learning (the proof will be in the pudding). It is likely authors and illustrators will get hurt, whatever happens. It’s likely that drowning publishers will become more aggressively demanding that authors swim harder against the current. I expect them to be rewarded in ‘awards’, literary ‘esteem’, ‘critical acclaim’, not cash.
So: how best do you cope with this? Personally I have no desire to see authors go broke, outside a few vicious Puppy-kickers, or for all dissenting opinion to be silenced and crushed. There are people I disagree with who write well, and I am ethically disposed to let the marketplace sort them out. Yes, I am aware that there is a very totalitarian attitude in the modern US Left that wants to silence and de-platform all dissent – but honestly is that not just that they cannot compete? If we become the enemy to beat them, we lose anyway.
No matter how hard you swim against the current – authors won’t push publishers to safety. More likely they’ll stand on you to get some air, and drown you.
The answer to failing appeal is not _more_ failure, any more than the answer to communism’s failure is more communism. Swimming harder against the tide, kicking swimmers going across or down would be futile, exhausting, and make those swimmers ready to drown you.
On the other hand if you are in this situation… you can 1) learn to swim with the current or at least not straight against it. I don’t think that the buying public would be fooled by a sudden change in direction and heart from David Gerrold or John Scalzi or NK Jemison – but for the vast majority of trad authors, this is less obvious. It’s that, or find a rock to cling to. There will be some rocks, or at least one, just as Baen was the rock for centrist and libertarian and right wing authors, when the current was running hard the other way. But the rock or rocks will be small – and the biggest ‘names’ are going to claim most of the space. 3) Swim across the current. Build yourself an independent brand, try not to alienate too many people in the process. 4) Catch the wind – use Patreon and Indigogo and the likes to find like minds and fund you to push you against the current.
Of course we can expect vicious and increasingly shrill attacks from the publishing establishment and their clients. There’s a reasonable chance that they’ll destroy as much as they can rather than accept change. We have had a foretaste with the No Awards at the Hugos. We’ve seen it expressed when Hillary Clinton lost the US election to Donald Trump.
The nastier that they get, the more desperate they are.