Thursday, July 9, 2009

Where am I going and why am I in this hand basket?

So Dave has talked about the way forward for the industry as a whole - and boy did he open the floodgates with that one - Rowena about what we use for inspiration, and Sarah about plotting and pantsing. This leaves me wondering what on earth I should be talking about, since, gee, I'm the itty bitty minnow in this pond of writers.

Scootching back a bit, Amanda's posted some interesting commentary on ebook, advances and royalties, John's talked about cheesy, bad taste headlines spawning stories, and Chris about crit groups vs going it alone. I'm not going any further back, but...

Is it my imagination or do I see the signs of a huge unmet need hanging around out there waiting for something to show up and provide it? We're living in what might charitably be described as interesting times for any number of reasons, but in a lot of ways we (meaning humanity in general and this subset of it in particular) have never been better off. Just thirty years ago the notion that someone would be able to type something, click a few buttons, and make it available to anyone in the world who wanted to see it wasn't merely insane, it was unthinkable. Literally unthinkable - there was no framework for the idea. Science fiction of the time has, assuming my often wonky memory hasn't jetted off to the Bahamas without me again (and it never sends post cards, either. sniff.), improved communications like video phones and often instant connection across vast distances. I don't recall anything I read that included anything like the ability for anyone to say anything and hang it out for anyone to see.

And yet... There's something missing. It shows in the responses to Dave's question about old-fashioned adventure stories and to a lesser extent elsewhere.

So I ask, what are we missing? Here we are with all this stuff we never dreamed of as kids, with friends from all around the world that we can more or less talk to, more or less free, any time we want. New books are flooding out at an unprecedented rate (aka title churn) but we writers aren't satisfied - and probably more to the point, we readers aren't satisfied.

I have my theories about why, and they tie into Dave's post from Monday, with the usual erratic segues all over the entire cognitive realm, but right now I'd like to know what you think is missing.

28 comments:

Anton Gully said...

Too much choice.

If you can either have something or not have something, then you're happy to have something. (unless it's something that needs to be treated.)

If you have a thousand options, you'll never be 100% happy you got the right one.

I think we all just got spoiled, had our expectations raised through the roof and lost and hope of satisfaction along the way.

Dave Freer said...

Missing? Besides my mind (mine sent me a postcard. Said it was in some place called 'the edge'. I think that's relatively close to me...) Several things - to just name a couple: 1)A connection between readers and publishers that provides data corrects for all the extraneous stuff. At the moment we have no real way of telling quite what (or who) people actually want to read, that isn't fudged with covers, distribution, marketing, name recognition etc. The truth is Joe Neverheardofim, who sold 37 copies through Lulu might actually be the sort of writer huge numbers want (think of TP and his original sales!), whereas Fredrica Famous, who got a million dollar advance, movie deal, tours of the western world, adverts in Times square, shelf-ends displays and book dumps and an interview with Oprah, actually puts people off reading ("bridges of what?" I hear you say;-)) but sold 400 000 copies most of which ended unfinished in the tip. I have strong ideas about what people want to read, but i have no idea if I am right.
2)Speaking as a professional writer, the acceptance of the fact that really, if writers are going to be full-time professionals, they need to - by the time they sell say 5 books - be able to make the equivalent living of a janitor off two books a year. Publishing is not financially in the best shape, but it suffers badly from two things. a)overabundant raw material - so you can pay peanuts. b)Rapid turnover. Let's face it - some people may only have one book in them, and their first book may be their best, but enough authors have proved that's an exception. And enough of the ones who disappear after a very short 'run' are good enough to convince me that I'd buy them in hardcover (whereas some authors just aren't flushable it seems)

Anton Gully said...

I see your point about "Joe Neverheardofim", Dave, and it's partially answered by Kate's original statement. These days Joe has the opportunity to build a community around his writing, thanks to the internet. Which leads to the problem Robin Hobb was talking about, where blogging and community building takes precedence over actually writing.

http://www.robinhobb.com/rant.html

Swings and roundabouts.

Anton Gully said...

Oh, and can I nominate TJ Bass as an author who apparently only had two good novels in him (1 proper The Godwhale, and 1 made up from two novellas in Half Past Human). Both works of genius.

Or John Steakley who only wrote Armor (one of my favourite books) and Vampires (which I never read after seeing the John Carpenter film).

Maybe there's something to be said for not being a full time writer.

Dave Freer said...

Anton, you're dead right that at least that's a door. And it's one of the reasons this blog suits me well - I have friends to share the load. But the truth is you can be a grat writer and have no social networking skilz - which brings me back to how do we assess a book.

matapam said...

I think we all need some degree of risk in our lives. And it's easier to get it vicariously through a book or movie, or safely on a roller coaster, than in real life.

In real life we don't have black belts, know how to fly an airplane, drive race cars, invoke a spell, teleport . . . we wouldn't survive the first chapter of some of the books we read.

But we can talk about it on the internet. We can pretend on the internet.

But we can't fool ourselves, and I think we're restless, knowing that our society won't let us suffer. When the most dangerous thing you do is drive to work, it takes a good book to give you back the thrill of striving and achieving.

And that's where the rollicking good story comes in. Movies are too short and superficial for a long term effect. Books can pull you into identity with the characters to a degree that movies can't. Books can give you the inner thoughts and feelings, their doubts and hopes. Books can create entire Universes in which your imagination can envision even further adventures. Books are very good ways to satisfy the inner hero in each of us.

As a writer, I need to satisfy the reader, but only after I've sold the book to a publisher who gets his or her vicarious thrills though risking the company's money with every contract. Pleasing both those consumers is a tough job, and i think is best addressed by getting a new batch of editors who live vicariously through books to a sufficient degree that they'll understand the final consumer, the reader.

The internet may be able to make an end run around the costs of printing and distributing, thus ridding us of the need for someone with an eye on those costs.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Ah!

We arent't dead yet.

all we need is a miracle pill, a holocaust cloak and a wheelbarrow and then we'll have fun storming the castle.

warpcordova said...

Sarah: You think it'll work?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Jason,

It'll take a miracle!

Kate said...

Anton,

Re: too much choice - that's actually been disproved. Absent some other stress pushing a decision, people tend to sample what's available until they find something they like.

Also, it confuses "lots of titles" with "choice" - if most of those titles are, to pick an example more or less at random, assorted Hamilton imitators, the choice is actually very limited. Lots of the same with itty bitty variations isn't choice, it's pretty packaging dressed up to make us think it's a choice.

Kate said...

Dave,

At least your mind sends postcards! Mine doesn't bother.

Both of your points are excellent - when there's no accurate sales data, you can't say what's actually selling. Even then, sales information doesn't see what's not selling because it isn't for sale. If there's a more or less steady proportion of readers who absolutely adore conspiracy fiction, but no-one's published any in an age and then some, that group isn't going to show up except possibly as declining sales.

Authors making a half-decent living off two books a year - hell yeah! And that's not my greedy side talking, either. It takes time for a writer to mature. Cutting them off after one or two books is killing the future supply, and paying so little that they have to churn out 5 or more a year just to make ends meet doesn't help either. That kills them after a few more books when the stress takes its toll.

It costs a lot less, relatively speaking, to print and distribute a book than it used to - but authors don't get any more of it.

Kate said...

Anton,

Re: internet community - there's a bit of a chicken and egg issue with this too, aside from - as Dave mentions - quite a few of us being utterly socially inept (waves). How does a writer get people to his or her site? People know that writer and hear about the site. How do people get to know the writer? Um. If the books get buried in title churn, not easy. If the writer doesn't have the time, money or skills to schmooze one end of the con circuit to the other and talk themselves up as the Next Big Thing, not easy.

I know writers have gotten started by being very visible in the con circuit and self-publicizing themselves - but what about those of us who don't have that ability?

This is a good start - I can run my mouth off here in the company of my fellow mad geniuses, and hope a little of their glow will rub off on me.

Kate said...

Dave,

How do we assess a book? It's almost impossible to separate the content from the surroundings. Did it sell badly because the cover stank to high heaven? Or did the boxes fall off the truck and the books never got into the stores at all?

Actual sales are difficult enough to find: the extra information like the number of copies printed, how many were shipped and where to - remembering that what flies off NYC shelves could easily languish in LA and have the Brits making rude gestures. That handy-dandy little barcode on the back could provide a lot of that data - if it was properly used.

That, sadly, requires actual understanding of math and statistics.

Kate said...

Matapam,

Absolutely. Books that allow us to vicariously live the adventures we can't have in real life serve a couple of purposes. First, our brains actually respond as if we really were doing these things. Since we're wired to live most intensely on the edge (Dave, did that postcard say anything about how to get there?), this is actually healthy.

Second, most of those lives we live through books or films or whatever (in my case almost all books) have meaning. The person we're identifying with is doing something vitally important. Modern life is full of useful stuff and all sorts of abstractions that put distance between us and the meaning of what we're doing.

For instance, I work as a software quality analyst. The software I test goes to hundreds of companies around the world, where it manages their ticket sales, their admissions, their membership plans... you get the picture. By doing my job well, I end up making the experience of thousands of people around the world a little bit better every time they go to an amusement park, zoo, or museum that uses my company's software - but I never experience that. Fighting for your life against the greatest swordsman in Thingummyland while trying to escape the burning building is rather more immediate :)

Kate said...

Jason, Sarah,

Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You kill my father. Prepare to die.

The OnyxHawke Agency said...

Just three things..
1) Courage. As in the courage to publish uncomfortable reads..
2) Humility. As in the humility to accept that as pro's we DO NOT know what the average reader wants.
3) Breadth. As in breadth of scope. We have massive sheep like trends as a genre, but no counter trends. Merely differently executed examples of the trends.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

OnyxHawke -- So do you think Indy Press are the people most able to take chances on 'out there' fantasy books?

While the big presses stick to more traditional door-stopper fantasies for instance.

I used to send the kids to school saying 'Have fun storming the castle, boys!'

Matapam -- Re: need for a challenge. I think that's why computer games are doing so well.

My teenage sons would rather be killing dragons in a game, than mowing the yard.

I'd rather be killing dragons (writing a book) than just about anything, including cleaning the oven.

tintinaus said...

Sorta on the too much choice angle; the need for shops to always have the new latest on their shelves means that books which would have only moderate turnover aren't stocked. If it isn't on the shelf, I can't buy it. Even books that could be considered genre classics suffer from this. Because they are no longer "walking off the shelves" they either aren't restocked or reprinted and then the browsing reader loses the opourtunity to read them at all.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. Part of that sense of dissatisfaction may come down to human nature as well. The fact that people are always looking for something more, something over the next horizon.

Great point Dave about the disconnect between sales and merit. I find that very encouraging.

Dave Freer said...

Kate - on good data. Yep, it would need a math-stats person with some knowledge of books to actually model it. The industry is not ready to acknowledge it, but it needs 'weighting'to attach to data. At the moment -not a clue if it is doing things right or wrong - but it's collecting bad stats and trying to use them. GIGO. Some of those 'weights' would be relatively easy to establish at least reasonable guesstimates. (name recognition, and distribution I can think of relatively cheap experimental mechanisms for - covers and various forms of advertising/promotion more difficult, but not impossible. Then you'd be able to compare apples with apples, instead of Gambusian ambulatory frink-fruit.

On the earnings issue: the basic purchasing parity value of a paperback hasn't changed in 50 years. Neither has author share. One thing has: the distribution curve of sales. Firstly there are a lot more books now (by title) if somewhat less sales (yes,really). The curve -historically - was a steep start in with major publishers newbie paperbacks for eg selling in the 70's IIRC an average of 40K - now 4K. And then the curve sloped up gradually. Now, the curve starts very gradually indeed, and STAYS low... and suddenly spikes steeply at the very end. This is largely because of changes in distribution and retail. It hasn't worked. If paperbacks were still selling 40K for newbies - A book would earn $25K - without hardcover - enough to starve in a garret and write on :-)- especially as it hit a slow rise from there. Now... Hardcover is all that's keeping publishers and authors afloat - and in hard times those sales will be hit and a small hit will have a disproportionate effect.

I'm sorry: Harry Potter is better than Joe Average Newbie's book... Probably should draw 10 times the audience, maybe 25 times the audience even. BUT it's not 2 500 times as good. No matter how you love it that's just not plausible. And actually it's not good for the industry to have such a model. It leaves them deeply reliant on a very small number of authors and titles. If something goes wrong (or they want more money say) the industry is up the creek.

The OnyxHawke Agency said...

Dave,

Surely you aren't insinuating that the publishing industry is following a model based on the performance of outliers and not on the mean? Such a thing is truly, wretchedly unthinkable.

Dave Freer said...

:-) O'mike- utterly unthinkable. Most people, faced with the idea that numbers have to make sense avoid thinking about it. Here's a scary- if very simplistic and not beyond anyone who can hit buttons on a calculator excercise. It's something every author and publisher should do. It's not too accurate but it'll give you some idea. Lets assume bestselling author, Fredrica Famous, for whom the company pulled out _all_ the stops and gave all the bells and whistles to, sold 1 million copies. 1)Readers are, let's guess 5 times more likely to buy a name they recognise than a name they don't. I think that's probably fair. So correct for name recognition. = 200 000 copies.
Advertising, promotion, can let's conservatively say can double the chances of name recognition. So correct for promo effort. Divide by 2. Corrected figure = 100 000 books. A great cover can definately at least double your chances of buying a book. correction =50 000 books. Let's assume that 50% of sales happen at non-bookseller outlets (Walmart etc, which only take bestsellers) so divide by 2. = 25 000. Adequate, ongoing (ie, when a book is sold it is immediately re-ordered)distribution and retail display is, based on my books that got some of it, and the one that didn't - will roughly treble sales. Call it, to be slightly mean, a correction to 8300 books.
Assuming that Joe Neverheardofhim got none of the above and still sold 4 000 copies... Fredrica is not worth 250 times Joe. She's worth just more than twice Joe. To work it backwards - unless Fredrica is selling at least half a million copies to Joe's 4000 - he's potentially as popular as she is. Now, that's an oversimplification and there are a million variable degrees between the extremes... and, for eg, all the promo in the world can only improve name recognition, not trust of a name - but it injects a degree of reality comparitive valuation. Real name recognition and trust do have value that accumulates - but sales numbers are not that great an indicator unless all variables are equal or corrected for.

Anton Gully said...

Kate - it hasn't been disproved. Given a choice people will sample what's available... True. What's available is infinite, people's lifespan isn't. I welcome your scientific disapproval of my simple facts. Given infinite choice, people regret their decisions. THAT's been proved.

http://www.newstatesman.com/200406070043

Link at random. I'd welcome a random link in response. Whatever, it doesn't matter anyway. We can bitch and bite all we want, it doesn't make anything any better, in respect of the facts we're discussing here.

Nothing has really changed lately. Writers fight their way out of the churn the same way they fought their way into it. The difference is, if there is one, that they have to prove themselves with an audience. So, an author can get a certain amount of recognition with their stories, even their first novels, but if the hype doesn't live up to the reality, they have a feedback mechanism that limits their spread.

The reason I read Dave's work is because I like it. It makes me feel better about myself. For me, it's not percentage points less than JK Rowling, it's a lot, a LOT, better. DF, is the reason I'm even commenting here.

If an author is twice, or thrice as good as another, does it justify earning a million times better?

Honestly, that's market forces. You get what you pay for. Widening the market, by way of the Internet is going to achieve that eventually. The payoff will be less, but the net will be cast further.

Kate said...

OnyxHawke, Rowena,

Small presses do tend to be willing to take more chances that I've seen. There's a definite need for the larger presses to move out of their comfort zone and stop chasing the megabestsellers no-one can predict (since the real ones tend to be a combination of 'fits the mood of the times' as well as other things and the 2+ year time between the editorial demon beings buying the thing and it actually getting to shelves mean the zeitgeist aspect is pure chance) in favor of building a stable of medium bestsellers, midlist building an audience, and newcomers.

How they're supposed to do that when the bookstore ordering and distribution systems are so horribly slanted towards whitebread pap is another question.

Hm. I may be over-tired. I'm getting snarky.

Kate said...

Tintinaus,

I'd actually call that false choice - if there's a store full of variations on a theme, that's not a choice. It's the difference between 10 brands of all purpose flour and ten brands each of white, whole wheat, gluten-free, rice flour, corn flour, oat flour etc...

And yes, if it's not there, you can't buy it, and hence there doesn't appear to be a demand for it.

Kate said...

Chris,

Yes, we do tend to look over the horizon for the next thing - but at the same time I think there's a difference between enjoying something and looking forward to the next step, and the kind of malaise I'm seeing.

The feel is more "Why bother? It's all crap." than "That was neat! What's next?"

Kate said...

Anton,

Actually, given infinite choice some people regret their decisions. I wouldn't be surprised that those people would also regret decisions they made between two more or less equivalent options.

Other people don't. Schwartz is actually arguing that if you don't fit some predefined "standard", stiff. I have to admit that I find it surprising that someone in a group that's often denigrated and regarded as a collection of deviants (science fiction fans) would support something that claims a) you either have all or nothing and any filters you use are invalid, and b) would be eliminated if only "standard" was available.

On the rest of the topic, Dave's books are satisfying reads. There's a smallish list of authors I'll buy sight unseen and Dave is on it. Rowling is not. The problem with invoking market forces is that - as Dave has described in thorough, painstaking detail - the market is horribly distorted. The gatekeepers aren't even looking for "the next Big Thing" but for "the next Harry Potter" - so if the next potential Big Thing speaks softly with a South African accent they're not going to recognize it even if it hits them on the head with the mega-clue-coconut.

Short of coconut barrage, I don't know how to change that. I wish I did.