Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Popcorn and the Single Writer

Kevin J. Anderson uses a popcorn analogy to illustrate two methods that beginning writers can use to break into print.

One of them consists of writing a single novel and polishing it and perfecting it until it is the absolute best it can be. He compares this to putting a single grain in a pot with just the right amount of oil, at the right temperature and waiting till it pops to produce the perfect single kernel of popcorn.

While this can work, if the kernel you put in is a dud, or if the one novel you concentrate all your work on is unpublishable, for reasons having nothing to do with how well crafted it is (theme, market, events in the world that make your premiss untenable) you’re going to fail.

Then there’s the other method that I – and a lot of other people used – you throw some oil in a pot at as close to a perfect temperature as you can make it, and you heat it. A whole bunch of them are going to pop, even if you get a few duds. (This doesn’t mean by the way that we care less about each individual kernel... er... novel. And it doesn’t mean that in the middle of the “okay” kernels there won’t be one or two perfect ones. Possibly not the ones we expect.)

This approach, of course, takes its toll on the writer, but it has the opportunity for bringing the greater rewards.

What Kevin didn’t say is that for at least the last ten years and probably more, publishers have taken this approach to writers themselves. It used to be they carefully selected a writer and often invested considerable time and effort in helping him or her perfect the craft and improve. Perhaps there are still editors out there that do that. One or two of mine have been very good, but often work with limited time, because these days their job is not to help the writer progress, improve or even become more commercial. At best, if they’re interested in you, they give you a call and make suggestions. My friend Rebecca Lickiss, for instance, at one time got asked to write a “bigger” novel. But that was all the guidance she got.

Gone are the days of legendary editors shaping a house to their vision and keeping writers for years as long as they were paying their own way, trying to help that writer develop a following.

These days, and I think since publishers have been able to control every process of distribution and exposure a writer can get/have so that they could “comfortably manufacture bestsellers” at will, they have used the popcorn theory with authors.

Well, not quite, because they do have favorites. In the center of the pot, they would clear a little space and drop one or two little favored kernels they shepherded to the popping into bestsellerdom. The rest of the kernels were thrown in haphazardly, around the edges, where it might be too hot or too cold. And if they didn’t pop they got thrown away and other kernels thrown in.

This total absence of response to market signals – in fact, inability to get market signals – since what the system was rigged for was GIGO, that is to give you back what you put in, didn’t bother anyone, because those perfect kernels that popped meant great profits for the houses. Also, the smart ones were aware that the house giveth and the house taketh away and they would toe the line. The dumb ones... well, there were always replacements for those.

But now in the brave new world of electronic publishing, which will only grow faster as paper books grow more expensive – and for our friends across the pond, this is guaranteed as our price of energy is skyrocketing, thereby skyrocketing manufacturing and transport as well – anyone with a name, no matter how acquired has a great incentive to publish him or herself. As Dave Freer detailed in his Monday post, there is no real reason for bestsellers to go with mainstream publishers anymore, and sooner or later they’ll all realize it.

This means the popcorn theory of publishing is dead. Heaven alone knows how many publishing houses it will take with it.

To me this seems amazingly obvious, as it seems amazingly obvious that the only way for a publishing house to stay afloat and prosper is to establish a brand – a taste if you will. The only way for a publishing house to stay afloat is to return to the days of legendary editors, say a Hugo Gernsback or a John W. Campbell, who take authors in whom they find a glimmer of something that could be great and mold and shape them and help them find their audience.

The big ones will still escape – unless you really make sure your brand is a value added (and you might. I know people who read everything Baen publishes, for instance, just for the brand) – but by the time they escape they’ll have been writing for you for years and getting incrementally better. And those who aren’t total SOBs might even write for you, on the side, for years after they start a solo-publishing career, because they’re grateful for the help you gave them.

Why aren’t any of the businessmen in publishing houses seeing this? Have I made some huge mess in my reasoning? Because this has gone beyond “obvious” to “plain as the nose on your face.” I don’t understand how anyone can miss it, much less people whose livelihood depends on the current, soon to become toxic, model.

*crossposted at According To Hoyt and Classical Values*

20 comments:

MataPam said...

Popcorn? Hot oil? I hadn't realized the final stages of getting published were so painful. ;)

And if e-publishing looks good to Best Sellers, imagine how it looks to someone with nothing. Unlike vanity or self publishing, you can get your stuff into the e-bookstore, try to stir up a bit of word of mouth and see if it flies.

Lucius said...

[shrug] People are pretty good at not seeing obvious things. Especially when they'd be unpleasant to the person in question.

At a societal level, this is kind of important. It means most of us don't flip out about whatever the latest chicken little rant is. Sometimes, Cassandra is actually right. But not very often. The end may be near, but it isn't here.

There once was a farmer, honest, industrious, and intelligent. You could not ask for a more credible witness. He was subjected to an elaborate "alien encounter" hoax by some bored engineering students. He believed the evidence of his senses, and being responsible, attempted to warn others of the revealed truth.
Aren't you glad nobody listened?

Kate Paulk said...

The most likely answer is that every last one of them is hoping that if they don't encourage all this new nastiness it will all go away. After all, in megacorporation land, doing what you're expected to do is the way to success. Trying something new is dangerous. If it doesn't work, you're out on your ear.

So you keep ignoring it and hope that it won't bite you.

Kate Paulk said...

Lucius,

There's a point where sensible skepticism becomes head-in-the-sand stupid. I'm not sure that pointing out examples of the former in a discussion of the latter does anyone any good.

And like I said, in the megacorporate environment, head in the sand stupid is actually the safest strategy for middle management.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Pam,

you know we write for love, and love hurts. Yeah, but for bestsellers it's a no-brainer. I honestly DON'T understand why people don't just do it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Lucius,

Not absolutely sure what you mean. Are ebooks here? Yep. You're talking to someone who FOR TEN YEARS dismissed ebooks as "flash and nonsense" (except as Baen did them.) But now they're indisputably here and growing. Will current trends speed up? I believe so and I'm not projecting on air but based on inflationary trend, people's need for cheap entertainment, etc.
Is it a "sky is falling" -- no. Not for authors, though for a while it will hit beginners and midlisters hard. Is it a disaster for houses? They're TELLING US it is. But they seem unable to realize their model is seriously wrong and change it. Now I understand this from editors/publishers. But... BUSINESS MANAGERS? Which they do have... and which should be SCREAMING.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kate. That, and possiblyt he fact that it really would need a system-wide overhaul, so they'd need the second under editor three rows from the window onboard, as much as the big wigs.

Stephen Simmons said...

When I enlisted, in 1982, Prez Reagan had just begun the push for a 600-ship Navy. (Bear with me, I *do* have a point here ...) There were 150 submarines, with plans for a fleet of around 175. That meant we had 150 ships worth of junior officers debating whether or not to pursue careers as ooposed to five-years-and-out, and the career-alternative they were contemplating was an expanding universe of command opportunities. But they still had the reality that each Commanding Officer springs from a "litter" of a half-dozen Ensigns.

The way to get there was to get there AHEAD of one's peers, by doing things to distinguish oneself from the crowd and run out in front. This produced an atmosphere of forward-looking, forward-thinking leaders, with a strong tendency toward taking carefully calculated risks.

Those junior officers went on to become department heads, who outnumber COs by three-to-one, but they were still seeking to capture those coveted command billets. Suddenly, their world turned upside-down, as Check Point Charlie was ripped out of the center of Berlin and the downsizing began.

Overnight, 168 ships' worth of mid-grade officers were gazing ahead to the promise of fewer than 80 command opportunities -- and the path to success instantly became: "Don't. Screw. Up."

No one took chances. No one stepped anywhere NEAR the lines, much less outside them. Decisions which I had routinely made on the deckplates in the engine room as a junior E-6 on my first ship were now debated at length by a Lieutenant Commander before committing to any course of action.

I see a lot of the same atmosphere in what I'm reading about publishing lately. "Everyone knows" that the reader pool is shrinking -- whether that's true or not. "Everyone knows" readers want this, that, or the other "trendy" type of book right now -- even if they don't, really. Groupthink is a very real thing, and is almost impossible to diagnose from the inside.

Then, as to why you see what so many of "them" don't: We're speculative-fiction writers. Meaning we have trained our minds to look for what is changing, and to postulate changes dso we can speculate about what the downstream events might look like.

As one survival expert describes it, the vast majority of people have an overwhelming "normalcy bias". They see what they expect to see, and rationalize away all the bits that don't fit in. I'm not saying authors aren't prone to that phenomenon, even spec-fic ones. I'm just saying that spec-fic authors are more likely to be able to recognize that in themselves, and look around it to see those inconsistent bits.

Lucius said...

My point, insofar as I had one, was that denial is to be expected.

[shrug] Kate's right. Any company that gets big enough becomes a bureaucracy, inherently inefficient, and extremely resistant to changing their business practices. (Above and beyond the basic societal inertia.)
The publishing houses *should* be frantically trying to adapt to the changing environment, but most of them won't. Heck, some of them are trying their darnedest to strangle e-books (and pad their bottom line) by charging more for them than for the physical product. They obviously don't have the leverage to succeed, but they're certainly trying.
(I have a morbid curiosity about what will happen to the rights they hold during bankruptcy proceedings. I fully expect many authors to get shafted.)

In related news: http://news.slashdot.org/story/11/03/09/0618234/Crime-Writer-Makes-a-Killing-With-99-Cent-E-Books?from=fb
Not that I think the price point would be feasible if everyone was doing it. But it certainly gives the movement away from publishing houses impetus, doesn't it?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Stephen,

I'm seeing that behavior with writers too. It's all "write exactly what I wrote last time." Only, my head is screwed on backwards, I think, so this is when I choose to go wildly weird.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Lucius,

There's an added thing here. In the past the way to get a job if your house collapsed was to be in with "the way business is done." You could always jump ship, then. I know SEVERAL editors whose reward for killing a magazine or seriously injuring a house was a better job. not once, but several times. Because see, they did this ACCORDING TO ESTABLISHED DOCTRINE. So, what does this mean? It means that they can't -- won't -- comprehend it's industry wide and what always worked before won't now. You read about stuff like this with... storms and changed climate(like... Greenland). People do what always worked before, until the situation gets so dire they either change or starve.
I wonder which one it will be, if the publishing establishment HAS it in itself to change...

Stephen Simmons said...

Sarah, I can't seem to get the handle of that whole "write the same thing" bit. The story I just got the thumbs-up on from Cliff today (boasting, just a little? Yeah ... and happy-dancing.) is about as different from the one they already accepted as two stories can be.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Stephen,

Yeah, I was told. :) Though I can't read anything for another month or so till I finish these two books. But I'm looking forward to it.
And Lord, I just sold a vampire trilogy, delivered a cozy mystery, had my historical mystery reprinted on a promise of doing book six if it does well, and I'm right now up to my knees in space opera. Meanwhile there's romances still percolating and er... I am due to finish the fantasy with Eric Flint soon too.

Stephen Simmons said...

Waitaminnit, back up.
Eric Flint? That sounds WAY cool.

My stuff-ta-do list isn't anywhere near that bad ... which is good, cuz I gots very limited time to write. When new ideas come along I have to jot down enough to capture the essence, and push them firmly into the Waiting Room ... just went rummaging through there and found 2,000 words of silliness I had forgotten even starting. I think I've got my April NRP submission ... :-)

T.M. Lunsford said...

As a youngling writer (ok, I still am a youngling), I dreamed of the industry being filled with such editors as the ones you spoke of.

I think (as I often do) I was born in the wrong time period. *sigh*

It almost seems, though, that such tasks as molding new authors has fallen to agents. Which is not a bad thing for writers or agencies, but it definitely leaves publishers in a pickle.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Stephen,

You do realize DST came from my rummaging through files and going "oh, I never published this. Wait, it still has SOMETHING. Maybe I can rewrite."
Eric Flint... collab has been getting punted down the road, due to both our schedules for... five years? But I don't think I can face him at cons if I don't do it already.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Taylor
The world is sort of like one of those cities continuously being torn down and rebuilt. I find it easier to embrace the future than to regret the past. Yeah, their editors were better, but I learned to type on a manual typewriter and TRUST me I'd not write that much on it.
I think my agent is one of those who helps people. Why "I think"? Well, I came to her as a published author and I didn't even realize she brainstormed with authors until I read about her doing it with another. I think I come across as too proud to ask for help. The truth is that I'm terribly afraid of bothering people.

MataPam said...

Bestselling writers are probably reluctant to change, because the old system works very well for them. Even the ones with tons of rejections before their first sale.

It's the people who barely clung on to the old system and are being overtaken and dropped who are uncertain about this new thing. Better or worse? At least they know the old way work, sort of. A e-pub is so close to self publishing which was the kiss of death until so recently.

Sarah, you and Dave are very brave.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Pam,

EVERY author I know is epublishing. Even Kevin Anderson. only they don't have time to write new stuff, so MOSTLY they have backlist and short stories. Honestly, you should be reading The Business Rusch, written by Kris Rusch. Excellent info on all this stuff.
On marginal writers -- neither Dave nor I fall in that category. Those are no longer employed and were already shed. It's just that rewards will diminish as the houses get in financial straits. So... we're looking at every possibility.

MataPam said...

Ouch! I didn't mean to imply either of you were marginal. You're brave to be moving into e-publishing even while still being traditionally published. Most people don't leap off their nice safe cliff until pushed.