I stand corrected. Critical mass is not what your doctor says about your weight gain. Nor is it what the priest (who reads but does not like the author) celebrates with him. Ah. Words. Slippery beggars aren’t they, and that’s before we start to look at people deliberately stealing words which have ‘good baggage’ to sell something that, honestly expressed isn’t. Like ‘easy payments’. Easy? Or ‘democratic’ – any group/country claiming this baggage, and proclaiming it loudly, deserves the most thorough baggage examination a microscope and sniffer dogs can offer. But critical mass… that’s quite defined and easily understood, as in the smallest mass of fissile material that can keep a nuclear chain reaction going (depending on things like shape and density etc.)
Under that point… nothing much happens. Over that point… it runs away from you with a sustained chain reaction.
It’s a concept that broadly translates to a lot of other things from snowpack on a steep slope (up to the moment the avalanche starts, all is well) to selling books. You suddenly get over a certain point… and everybody seems to buy it. It’s a social phenomenon as well, well known from the former communist states – where opposing the regime was… ineffectual, until critical mass got reached, and then was unstoppable. People were silenced, and afraid. That didn’t actually mean they supported the regime or opposed those who wanted to bring it down. It just meant that the regime knew that if the critical mass existed… while they kept the various pieces of that mass ignorant of each other, their power was supreme. It is very much part of the current ‘control the media, publishing, and social media’.
Wealth, leisure time, health, all of these have never been as good for as many people in history of our species. When you’re sufficiently comfortable your tolerance for other rubbish is high. When you think you’re the only person irritated by something, it’s higher because you think you’re alone and liable to cop it if you step up, and really things aren’t too bad.
Where this changes of course is if people discover that they’re not alone, and things become… not quite so good. Not the too few calories to survive situation (then people only think about surviving, and thoughts beyond the immediate are harder foment) but the ‘things are definitely not as comfortable’.
I think we’re hitting close to that critical mass – and I suspect one of the changes is very visible in my writing world. Oh, not because of us – because of the way the book (and other things) buying world has changed. Look, one of the best pieces of advice I got as an author was “don’t read the reviews”. It’s not easy advice to take, because you do want to know what people think of your book (and naturally hope they like it.) Every author I ever met is somewhat insecure (and yes, that includes some very big sellers) although one learns not to let it get to you (ergo, don’t read the reviews. You can’t answer them, and some of them will be by people who don’t like you, or maybe don’t like your book. (When they slate it and it isn’t a verified purchase, it’s usually you, and nothing to do with your book, otherwise, well, at least you got some money for the abuse.)
So: I try not to. Oh, I appreciate the good five star ones no end – but I will read the others too. And that’s not a great idea. But they DO affect sales… and, especially, sheer numbers affect sales positively (critical mass, eh?) Look at a book and see it has 4 five star reviews… it’s not that relevant to influencing my choice, anyway. But if it has 50… or hundreds, and is averaging 4.5… it does say ‘A lot of people read this and in general enjoyed it, so the chances are good I will’. Now, the curious thing I noticed the other day: I have, obviously, royalty statements of what publishers say I have sold. And here’s the thing – I remember when 15 reviews was a lot. Now a book selling about the same number of copies… will attract 60+ reviews. And I remember being very excited when SHADOW OF THE LION got over 50… (now a little short of 100) and the SHAMAN OF KARRES (my last book out) – which will have sold ¼ of SHADOW’S sales, has 260 odd. Amazon has always made up a lot of my sales, maybe more now, but Baen were always poorly represented in bookstores for midlisters like me.
Comparing sales numbers with review numbers on Amazon: We’re up in customer interaction, 500%, more or less. In my opinion we’re heading towards a point where customer input starts driving both authors and sales. A critical mass of critics, not under the control of anyone but themselves.
Long odds that customers do not see as ‘good’ what the publishing industry (very insular, very Arts academia, very far left, very out of touch with the world-view of the average reader) sees as good. And if it is happening here, in what was a crown jewel in the long march through the institutions, it’s happening elsewhere. And people realize firstly they’re not alone, and secondly that it’s what they want (not their self-elected betters) that matters.
So: go forth and review books YOU like. You’re adding to critical mass, and will spill across your entire world.