It’s not zero sums

This is a blast from the past, but it’s still applicable even if the central tantrum has been long forgotten. I’m afraid I’ve been sick, and am thus a girl of very little brain this morning in search of hunny… And perhaps tea to put it in.

Hear, O fellow authors, and consider this. Writing is not a competition. There is not a scarcity of readers, and although there has been for lo, these many years an artificial scarcity of of reading material, that drought is coming to an end with the Age of Indie. So why do we hear fearsome cries from certain throats, proclaiming that those who are elders in the field should step aside and let them in?

The young person who has been most noticed for this recently (although it is not a new lament), has apologized. “Shepherd apologised for upsetting writers and readers alike, explaining that she had “only ever meant to raise the issue of how hard it is for new writers to get noticed and how publishing is much more of a zero sum game than people often think” However, it remains that she thinks publishing is a zero sum game.

I had to look that up. I’d heard it before, of course, and from context knew more or less what it meant, but for the writing of this article, I needed to research, to make certain that what I was saying was accurate. So, here: “The theory of von Neumann and Morgenstern is most complete for the class of games called two-person zero-sum games, i.e. games with only two players in which one player wins what the other player loses.” However, this is palpably inaccurate when it comes to writing. There are far more than two players involved, and the success of one writer does not predicate the loss of another.

By the success of JK Rowling, there are more readers, rather, for us the authorial sort to lure into reading of our books. What we must do to win is not to shove aside those who have succeeded, demanding our turn in the game, but to write engaging books readers will not only read themselves, but recommend enthusiastically to others. You will note I have removed the publisher from this equation. At one time, there was a bottleneck, for the publisher can only afford to publish so many titles, and to promote so many (a fraction of those they do publish) authors. That bottleneck is breaking open, and as independent authors our reach is spreading. My books, published by the very small imprint that they are, can be ordered from any bookstore, and when I look online, they are available at least in webstores of the largest book retailers.

In order to win this game we play, it’s not the other writers we need to defeat, it is ourselves. For fear of rejection, for laziness in not wanting to promote and market one’s own book, for lack of confidence in getting the best cover and editing we can, we shoot ourselves in the foot, and do not succeed. I venture to say that the Shepherd person has not succeeded because of Rowling’s success, but her own shortcomings. Like a child in a game, she has pitched aside the board, and now pouts petulantly, blaming her loss not on her own lack of skill, but her opponent.

The readers are out there, I say again. Writers, if you can offer them a good product in the form of a story with meat on its bones, with engaging characters, well-constructed plot, and emotional appeal, you will win. If your story is not selling, or selling too slowly for your tastes, inspect the product you are offering, and ask yourself questions.

The oft-discussed post demanding “I want an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories.” is an excellent example of another writer who feels that it is failing in a field do to discrimination against itself. In this case, not by another writer, although certainly it seems to feel it is hard-done by those who view its views as odd. No, it wants more stories with its viewpoint in them. Lovely, dear. Go write them. If they sell, wonderful! If not, do not go around moaning that you are being discriminated against because you are an it/she/alienbeing. Again, that is not how the game is played. Appeal to the readers, and you have won. Make them yawn, or repel them, and you lose.

When I started mulling this post over in my head, waiting for it to gel and be ready, someone mentioned the calls for Stephen King to retire. I went to look as part of my research, and found that rather than calling for him to step aside and let other writers in, the cry seemed to be that his writing had gone downhill, and he should stop. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to have made a dent in Mr. King’s presence, as this took place over a decade ago, and I believe (I don’t personally read him, but as a librarian was very aware of how much shelf space he occupied, and how many requests we had for his books) that he has another book coming out this year. You see, no matter what the critics think, it is the readers who matter. They are the ones who buy the books, and that is what wins the game.

Readers win, with good books they want to read, and authors win, with sales. Publishers who care about giving the readers what they want (coffBaencoff) win, and publishers who care only about pushing their agenda (see blog address for ‘it’ above) lose. Zero sum? No, more like exponential growth, and I don’t see a limiting factor, yet… Want to feel like you are winning? write more!

43 thoughts on “It’s not zero sums

  1. Writing and the industry is far from zero sum. The way I see it the best writer could probably produce at the most ten books a year (for varying degrees of produce). A reader can “consume” at the least twice that if they are rather voracious and most can be if not more so.
    Another factor, not all writers will appeal to all readers. Hence the concept of genres. Getting into one genre well set is good, and if you can get yourself read then even better.
    Asking someone more successful than you to step aside is sheer laziness. Ask yourself this one question, “How long did big name author/writer spend in slush piles before hitting it big?”

      1. There is a reason I make lists of books and publish them on my blog. I will happily recommend books and keep readers happy, because I can’t write that much. Besides, I am a reader myself, with voracious habits.

        1. Reading is probably the only hobby where getting new authors to read does not mean ‘then I stop supporting the other one I enjoyed!’

          It leads to “Well, I don’t have to buy that particular thing, I can find a cheaper just as servicable alternative, and get both the thing and the books! Win-win!”

      1. Depends on where you stand when measuring. In 2013, the median male read 4 books a year, and the median female read 6 book a year. (as opposed to mean, which were 10 and 14, respectively. Sadly, the Pew research didn’t indicate the mode, as well.)

        To the cluster of voracious readers on the very outlier end – the 50+ books a year crowd – 20 looks paltry. But to the mean, median, and everyone on the other half of the graph from the truly voracious, 20 is a pretty darned high number, well above two out of three terms of “average”.

        1. Would you describe someone as a voracious eater of candy if he ate a piece somewhat less often than every two weeks? Regardless of whether that was above average?

          “Voracious” means something more than above average; it conveys a great amount in absolute, not just relative, terms.

          1. Ah, but candy only takes a few seconds to eat, where books take hours to read. When it comes to other activities that take hours for entertainment, if someone went to the movies every two weeks, I’d say they’re a voracious consumer of movies. If they went to the zoo every two weeks, year round, I’d say they’re one of the hardest-core zoo-goers, only exceeded by the stroller mom groups that meet there twice a week for exercise.

            If someone goes to church twice a month, to the Christmas & Easter crowd, they’d look pretty hardcore. Even if they are looked down at as dilettantes by Sister Bertha-Better-Than-You who’s been guarding her spot on the pew for every single service, mass, bible study, fish fry, and what have you since Christ was in diapers.

            So yeah, the hardcore romance readers, and the mystery readers who like to check out ten books a week from the library may not find two books a month (less interruptions for Thanksgiving and Christmas) to be rather light, but to the office, the gal who is reading one to two books a month is “She’s Always Reading.”

            Like I said, it’s a judgment that depends on where you stand when you’re measuring.

            1. This! When I was working and had an hour commute to and from work on transit, I would read a book a week minimum. Not just new stuff, but re-reading series that I enjoyed. Now, my reading is at least a book a month minimum. Not because I don’t enjoy it, because I have things that require more of my attention. That’s the one thing I miss most about having a job is the luxury of reading for pleasure.

      1. With the ones who are college professors and have never done anything else I can sort of understand it. They spend their lives fighting with other departments and faculty members for a bigger share of a fixed budget – they really are in a zero-sum game.

        As for the rest of the idiots: have you noticed that they can rarely think beyond a third-grade level? Right. And what were they doing in third grade? “If Mary has 6 apples and she gives John 3 of them how many apples does Mary have left?”

        1. As a slight tangent to your college professor comment, one of my college classmates described a dream he’d had the night before, where a huge windfall had occurred to the college and the various departments were fighting over it. Literally. He was an engineering student, so the calculations of the amounts of explosives needed to bring down the Chemistry building were involved.

  2. Some of these complaining authors are actually playing a negative sum game. If they got the readers to read their works, and follow their socio-political correctness, the readers would stop multiplying, world populations would plummet, and they would actually prevent the next generation of readers in the womb.

    1. I glanced at the link and saw the 5000 number, but it seems to me that that’s meaningless without the knowledge of how much time it took to get to those 5000 sales. Bestseller lists measure speed of sales rather than total volume, so saying it takes 5000 sales is like saying your car has an acceleration of 60 mph; we need more information to know what that means. If we assume a week, I could believe that 5000 sales in a week would get you on the list, at least, if not necessarily to the top.

      Related, Larry Correia had a post including some information on how the NYT bestseller list works and how ridiculously easy it is to game it. Here’s the link for anyone who hasn’t seen it and is interested:

      1. That was helpful. It seems NYT BS (Best Seller, haw! I’m such a delinquent) is based on one week of sales at specific stores. Which are supposed to be “secret” but everyone in the biz knows which ones. That of course introduces yet another layer of doodoo into the NYT BS because of selection bias. It will skew toward a high-volume sales urban market, most likely all East Coast cities.

        I’m informed by a Canadian writer friend, who has reason to know, that 5000 total sales is a Canadian “best seller” these days. Famous Author Friend says Canadian authors get most of their money from government grants, plus things like Public Lending Right cheques for library lends, and a program that “measures” photocopying royalties. Canadian publishers get grant money too.

        My take on that is it goes a long way toward explaining why Canadian Content is so ghastly. Really, Margaret Atwood at her unreadable worst is better than most of the Important Canadian Authors out there. Literary, on steroids. Reason is, the authors are chosen for political reasons. Meaning they’re a Friend of A Friend who wants a favor, or they are Important Person’s wife, or any number of inside baseball reasons why they got a grant. Its an incestuous little circle of Toronto literati elite, that’s for sure. There’s more going on than raw political message, its more about who you know.

        This does not lead to good stories, lets just say. Bad stories lead to zero sales. Nice circularity in a socialist environment. Crank up those grants!

      1. I looked at the Amazon reviews for the book. There’s so many 1 star nasties you can’t even dig down to the original 9 five star reviews she started the ball rolling with.

        This sort of thing is what makes counting reviews a waste of time. Twitter picks somebody for a turn in the ducking chair, and the numbers suddenly go into three and four digits of 1 star reviews.

    2. People have been manipulating the NYT list for a looong time. Hubbard’s followers got caught doing it for “Battlefield Earth” thirty-odd years ago.

        1. Close — they tried, and did buy a nomination for Black Genesis in 1987. And Card’s Speaker for the Dead won, and Black Genesis finished behind No Award.

          There was also a Hubbard novella, “To the Stars”, nominated for a Retro Hugo in 2001. While that did finish last, it got onto the ballot on merit. Hubbard was a good writer during the 1939-1950 period, and I’ve nominated some of his works for the Retro Hugos myself, and I still recommend his novella, “Fear”, to anyone who really likes horror fantasy, or “Typewriter in the Sky” to someone who likes humorous fantasy, or his novel, Final Blackout, to people who like post-apocalyptic stories. And he wrote a lot of other good, but not great, stories during that period. So him making the ballot in the Retros wasn’t his followers buying nominations, but was fans who read extensively in the works of the classic period, and who liked the work. So he lost that Retro — but it came behind some great works (Heinlein’s “The Man Who Sold the Moon” won, beating out not only the Hubbard, but also works by Sturgeon, Asimov, and Piper) and was a deserved honor to be competing, legitimately, among those works.

  3. I wasn’t going to comment; I have an astronomical (literally) blunder to sort out; some chores here; and, most significantly, a sort-of contrarian opinion. The zero sum game isn’t readers, it’s Joe’s entertainment funds. Joe may elect to spend more on reading, but that hasn’t been Joe’s trend. There’s various reasons for this, including rising costs of printed materials and the practical collapse of distribution. But it is finite, meaning there’s only so much to go around.

    That doesn’t upset me because everyone has equal chance. Joe doesn’t care about the author’s gender or skin color or, if the author isn’t obnoxious, politics. Everyone has an equal chance at Joe’s money.

    Now, if the game was rigged, which traditional publishing seems bent on, then there would be a reason to be upset. But indy opens the game for anyone to play. Thus there’s no reason to feel upset at competition. Well, I suppose if someone knows they can’t compete they might have a reason, but that’s an admission they’re outclassed.

    1. it’s still not a zero-sum, but I agree that there is only so much entertainment budget to spend – I know that is the case for me and my family, for sure. I don’t think I’m competing against most of my colleagues, though: I think that, as you said, I’m competing against other media/entertainment. If other authors and I can produce great reads, we can get Joe to allot more of his monies to books. If the only books he knows of are bad reads, he’s going to spend more on… other stuff.

  4. Expected my post to vanish. Whatever.

    Instead, I’d like to ask an off-topic question: Is there something like a historical astronomical almanac to calculate things like rise and set time in the past? You can fudge with the sun, and get close enough if you a modern table and allow for the difference between Julian and Gregorian calendars in a given year, but moon rise and set is another issue. I’ve so far tinkered with an open source astronomy program, and about to see if the old US Naval Observatory ICE will do what I need, but wondered if there was something more reliable.

    Thanks in advance.

      1. Thanks. In that time frame I like the US Naval Observatory’s page at . Unfortunately, they don’t go back to the Middle Ages, or I haven’t found the right one.

        For sunrise and sunset it’s possible to fake it by taking the same latitude, set it at 0 longitude, pick a modern year, and adjust the day to the Julian Calendar with Gregorian date + int(year/100)-int(year/400)-2. But moon rise and moon set is another issue.

        I thought I had a quick and dirty “Eh, close enough” solution, but was based on a horribly wrong premise for that latitude. Had to put a big, fat, errata notice at the top of my blog post.Now I’m tinkering with Stellarium. but may have to try to calculate it myself.

        1. There might be Jewish resources (hopefully not in Hebrew) since they’ve had a lunar calendar (almost literally) forever.

          But why? If you get it wrong, who is ever going to notice? Was it a waxing or waning moon at the Battle of Hastings? I vote for whichever advances the plot.

          1. Because it impacts night scenes. This one has a a very specific internal clock that runs from the Saturday a week before Easter, then for over a month. After that, there’s no tight time frame.

            The issue is, when is the moon up and what is the available light. The later I know, because I did find a table of moon phases for that year. My error was tying it to sunset, such as full moon = rise at sunset, then realized that essentially treated it as a local event, and, at that latitude, it may not happen.

            It just hit me I could look at moon phases close to the dates in the story but for the modern era, and then calculate for the latitude and 0 longitude, just as I did for sun rise and set and twilights, and use that.

            It had given me the excuse to buy a book on astronomy calculations, which comes with associated spreadsheets. However, there’s a peculiar license agreement that says any publication using the spreadsheets must be sent to them before or at publication, and now I’m very hesitant about touching them at all.

            Since time is the 14th Century, time is determined by the sun and stars, with equal hours between sunrise and sunset, then from sunset to sunrise, regardless of the season. There’s not a high degree of precision here. But, given the latitude, it might not do for a character to note the moon rising as the sun is setting.

  5. In some ways, I suspect the math is similar to that for a multiplayer zero sum game. And, from what we know about game theory, the math for that is hard (Nash got a Nobel prize for showing that there are some multiplayer zero sum games which are easy to solve, by putting constraints on the behavior of players). But, the idea that publishing is a zero sum game is both true, and irrelevant to the real world.

    In a resource-constrained environment, which each reader is, then, for the constraining resource, then the writer is competing in a zero sum game — every gain that the one writer makes will be at the equivalent cost to another writer. The constraint is probably different for each reader. Bill Gates can afford to buy any book published that he wants to read. But, for him, the constraint of time still means that he has only 168 hours/week to do all the things he wants to do, and, at the margin, time spent reader book A is time taken away from reading book B, assuming those are the final two choices he has to make.

    But it’s an irrelevant true statement. For an author,in real life, you’re not just competing against every other author for the reader’s limiting resource, you’re competing with every other possible use of that resource. As Heinlein put it, you’re competing for beer money (for readers where money is the constraining resource). So, if another author successfully competes for beer money, and moves the reader to transfer money from beer to book A, then that doesn’t mean that a different author can’t convince that reader to transfer other beer money (or some other use of the constraining resource) to book B. Or the reader who now doesn’t have any spare money can convince the local library to get book B (and, with enough demand, the library will probably buy a book even if they don’t have it yet). And if the author of book A convinces the potential reader (who didn’t know he liked books like A, and discovered that books like A are really great), then all the authors who produce books like A benefit, because there’s now a new reader who might buy those books that weren’t originally under consideration.

    So calling it a zero sum game is true, but only if you do all the math (which you can’t — none of us are Nash, and even he only worked one relatively simple case). In the more useful case, the author recognizes that the odds of making a lot of money by winning a Nobel for game theory advancement (about a million dollars) are a lot worse than the odds of writing an interesting book that people want to read, and ignoring the “competition” with other authors, and tries to compete for beer money, thereby expanding the pool for all authors.

    And, as a reader, not an author, I just look forward to finding more interesting books to read. And, as has been stated upthread, no author can produce enough books to fill my entire reading time/money budget, so I’m always looking for new books, even if I buy every book my favorite author produces (which, in fact, I do).

  6. When you look at what people pay for cable, and then complain that there’s nothing worth watching, I doubt either time or money is a hard limit. We just need to sell them on a different form of entertainment.

    1. If you want to see how low that bar really is, watch the new Netflix rendition of “Death Note.” It is -bad-, I mean really bad. The SJWs are all screaming that the production didn’t cast enough Japanese people, which means they are utterly missing the boat.

      The writing is -crap-. Honestly, they could have literally taken the anime, grabbed the first three episodes, copied it live action shot-for-shot, and been better off. They instead took the existing story, threw it over their shoulder, and substituted Nightmare on Elm Street. Or name some other random crappy B horror flick.

      That is the level of entertainment value you have to beat.

      1. That is the level of entertainment value you have to beat.
        Yes it’s a low bar. Look at the people entertained by that stuff though. :/

        1. I have. And what I see are people who are exhausted after a long shift, who don’t want to have to think or work at following the plot. They just want to kick back, and enjoy some entertainment.

          If I could entertain them with exotic locations as well as Rate My Crib or Real Housewives Malibu, and with the melodramatic love and sacrifice and comeuppance of horrible people as a telenovela, and make them root like they do for someone who overcomes Simon’s sarcasm to flourish and receive the adulation of the crowd on The Voice… then I would really have something, there, that’d compete for a heck of a lot of beer money.

          They’re not much different from the man on the evening train who hunches down for his Edgar Rice Burroughs and other pulp fiction to escape the bread lines and the war news of WWI.

  7. I think the definition of “zero sum game” you looked up is based on a two-person game. When you have a multi-person game, “zero sum” means that the wins and losses, added together, total zero. So if someone wins, that means someone else (or several someones) lost.

    Rush Limbaugh imagines leftists looking at very successful people and thinking “they stole that money”. That’s zero-sum thinking.

    It’s interesting to think of what sort of game writing is. If everyone reads as many books per year as they’re going to, a new writer breaking into the market can only succeed if readers switch to reading that author’s books and away from some other author. Same number of books read, so the sum of the wins and losses add up to zero.

    But I doubt that’s the way it works. I doubt the market is saturated, as it would be if people were all reading as many books per year as they were ever going to. I suspect people who are lured into reading one book or set of books may find they enjoy reading so much they start buying other books to feed their new habit. Certainly that was one of the reasons why people thought the swell of interest in the Harry Potter books was a good thing — get the kids reading and they’ll get in to the habit. So far from a zero sum game.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: