On tribes, divisions and markets.
I’m not American, so actual US citizens are welcome to entirely disregard my opinions (hell, they’re opinions. You’re welcome ignore them, no matter where you come from. But I am talking about a country and a market that is not my own. ) Of course, sometimes from outside the trees, you can see the wood. Please understand that I don’t personally care what your politics or beliefs are, I am putting the status quo and future in writing world – particularly of sf/fantasy in the biggest English market, the US, as I see it. That almost certainly will be wrong. The arguable point is how far wrong. What I hope is worth deriving is how you can position yourself to work best for your writing sales.
It’s been apparent to me that the two sides of US the political divide are further apart than ever. Both sides consider the other’s positions extreme. This divide has grown for some time but it really started to become obvious to me about 10 years ago. Since then that has accelerated. I’ve seen no signs of either side being willing (or able) to turn that around. Part of this was left having decided the arrow of history only went one way –towards their idea of ‘progressivism’. This is well illustrated here with this charming photograph of how primitive and repressive Afghanistan was in 1960, compared to the liberties and dress-codes and education they now enjoy…
Yes, steady and directionally one way…
Anyway, the US Left decided they couldn’t lose, and there was no need to treat the people who were doomed to lose with the respect you might give a foe who might be the victor.
That worked out really well.
But instead of dealing with that reality, and of course people who really hadn’t enjoyed the prior attitude, doubling down seems to have been the order of the day. Ergo, the division is now wider than ever. It’s particularly exemplified by ‘demonization’ of anyone who isn’t in their camp.
The left calls the right – that is to the right of them, which includes people who don’t support either side, or don’t care: racists, sexists, homophobes, misogynists (the female right, particularly), and Nazis and Fascists. The latter is quite funny to any student of 20th century history, as the aims of fascism are eerily similar to the manifestos of the more extreme left, and they both like same color shirt for the thugs they use to silence any dissent. Accuracy doesn’t come into any of it, it’s really about calling them the names of things they have been told are right to hate.
The right tend call the left socialists or communists. This, considering Venezuela and the mass-murders of various communist regimes is their epitome of vile. The left often embrace these labels (accurate or not).
Both sides call each other idiots, stupid, etc. This remains somewhat inaccurate, as neither side has a monopoly on stupidity or idiots – and there are some people on both sides capable of brilliance – which is particularly obvious where what they’re being brilliant about has little to do with their politics. A brilliant surgeon or artist’s work can remain brilliant, even if they think Mao was a good man, or all homosexuals should be pushed off buildings.
In theory, at least, it should be possible for us to judge the work on its merits, not on the person who did the work’s views. For years this was held up as kind of epitome of integrity, and right and fair way to judge and decide.
In this circumstance, you find book contracts, sales or awards, are a close approximation of that group’s demographic representation, barring some logical reason. To use an example from a different context: Jews and Catholic demographics would closely reflect in a blind wine tasting competition, Mormons and Muslims would not. If you apply the filter ‘drink alcohol, have taste buds’ they should be close to demographically representative, within reason.
The same would apply (with say the filter of English and literate) to world of writing. If there’s a deviation, there should be a valid reason – IF it is on merit.
The problem of course is if some of the audience or judges don’t judge on merit. Then the awards or sales are skewed away from those they judge against on matters beside the merit of the work, and towards those they like. This becomes even more obvious if one group or ‘tribe’ in the total population acts this way, and the rest act on the basis of merit. If all Catholics only buy books by Catholics and only vote for Catholics in voted awards, but everyone else buys and votes for what they rate best… It’s pretty sweet for Catholics. You can see ‘tribal’ bias straight away in the numbers – as one did in Hugos.
It’s the kind of deal that ONLY works, if the whole population (excluding the tribe) goes on being fair and on merit, while the ‘tribe’ favors their own, and discriminates against ‘non-tribe’ members. You can see it in the workplace, in the arts, in education, and of course in writing. If any group is way out of line with its demographics – You have 90% Catholics in an opera but the overall population has 25% — That group has almost certainly been playing tribally. The end result is usually that the rest start to play tribally too – at least against the ‘tribal’ group.
Traditional Publishing in political ‘tribes’ is best explained by this. Nothing measures as honestly as ‘money’ – and this is by donations to the left and right.
So: if you wish to publish traditionally, the game on easiest setting is plainly to show you tribal colors – so long as that color is blue. You can see it works.
It’s worth pointing out that this ‘writer’s’ section would include self-published non-traditional authors. I could dig for the graph, but, coarsely speaking this is now about half the e-book earnings. As the buying may also be ‘tribal’ but that’s the buying books by the reader, not the publisher – we’re probably looking at the bulk of the red coming out of this. Traditionally Published Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors are very ‘tribally’ skewed to the left.
The same analysis can be applied to awards, or sales. If there is a major deviation from the demographic with no viable reason: ‘tribalism’ is at play.
Which is all fun and jollies if you’re in and shouting loudly — for that ‘tribe’… until anyone else starts to act tribally.
At which point you have an interesting problem IF you played the game on easiest setting, shouting loudly for your ‘tribe’.
Work it out: IF left and right are equally split (which they’re not) 75% of authors going for 50% of market… and 25% selling to the other 50% tribe… You’re in financial pain.
It actually gets worse. If you take the self-published out – we’re in SF by numbers of authors not sales, sitting at 90% Trad Published being identifiably ‘Left’ and pushed fighting for the 50% of their ‘tribal’ share. Even if only 10% of those outside their ‘tribe’ start buying tribally, it’s going to hurt them, and make a lot of difference to those not in the ‘left’ tribe – because that’s 10% between very few people.
But wait… there’s more! In fact DOUBLE THE WHOLE OFFER.
You see the US is NOT split into 50% for each tribe. And given that one tribe, the Left or they call themselves ‘liberal’ has been acting tribally against the rest – 26% – more or less a quarter, belong to that tribe, with the other two ‘tribes’ the independents or moderates and conservatives at around 37% each. Which is a world of hurt if you’re from the 90% of trad published left wing authors fighting for the tribal share of 26%. You’re also in a world of hurt if you’re one of the ‘tribal’ publishers relying on selling non-tribally.
It was amusing – in the light of this, to have a friend I asked to track another reference for me ask what I was writing and produce this claim by John Scalzi that he’s really moderate, and certainly not far left.
Let’s be honest, I don’t like John Scalzi – it’s a personality and culture thing. I come from a culture where boasting about how good and successful you are is as well received as really loud fart in church, in the silence just after the minister has said ‘any just cause or impediment why the couple should not be joined in holy matrimony.’ When that boasting slides into exaggerating your importance and belittling others to boost that, that goes down like the guy who rips his trousers off and starts masturbating at the same point. I know, this is the American market, American culture, things are different, and I’m selling into a foreign culture, and need to adapt to it, not it to me.
I’m not good at it. I mean my ‘lawn’ is more than an order magnitude bigger than Scalzi’s with a wonderful sea-view – but that’s more down to good luck, good mentors and good friends than my mediocre talents and non-existent importance, so I don’t mention it with great frequency to puff myself up. Besides, it is mowed by wallaby, and by wombats who leave square poos on its pristine beauty.
I had to work hard to judge the guy’s work without letting my small interactions him and his personality color them. I’ve managed to enjoy a few writers who I don’t like in person, and many I disagree with. Likewise I regard a few writers as great guys, but I can’t read them. In this case I don’t like his work either. YMMV.
That said, I admit he has valuable skills for his chosen path. I do think he’s been very successful at self-promotion, and has ingratiated himself and identified with his publishers. He’s very good at both, and if that’s the route you wish to follow, I firmly suggest you study him, and learn from him. You don’t have to like someone to learn from them.
In traditional publishing this often seems to translate into large advances, which in turn means your publisher must recoup that, so they spend heavily on promotion, and make a huge laydown and push the distribution as hard as possible. This can end up on the two-for-one tables and reject remainders – but because the exposure and availability is huge, you can still easily outsell books readers enjoy far more. If your book is great AND you got all this, you could easily become a runaway bestseller. If not, your publisher is probably no better at admitting they made a mistake than most people.
Invisibility is more of an enemy than ‘meh’ but known.
This is sound business sense… up until that ingratiation means (as it does) you too must identify with your publisher’s ‘tribe’
Then – when other ‘tribes’ become ‘tribal’ too…
Then name recognition and association with a ‘tribe’ can become a poison chalice.
You can try telling everyone that, really, you’re moderate. Good luck with that. It’s as likely to lose you readers as your own ‘tribe’ – a tribe Gallup characterizes as moving further left. Personally, I’d suggest getting rid of the word ‘fascist’ as a descriptor of ‘people I don’t like or agree with’ might be a sensible start, for a ‘moderate.’
If you can’t do this: go indy. Trad: Baen is worth trying, they at least have taken authors historically and recently from a range of political positions, making them literally the only one I can think of.
The other ways of playing the game are much harder settings. If you want to spot real talent and great role models for your writing itself, those who succeed without the ‘tribal advantage’ are those who are the great talents of our field.