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Number 1,011, March 10, 2019

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Two Worlds, Not Alike at All
by Sarah A. Hoyt

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Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

As you all know (or at least should strongly suspect, since we’ve talked about various aspects of them all the time) we live in interesting times.

Technology is changing so fast that it’s changing the way everything happens from courtship to cooking, from politics to leisure. And most of us aren’t exactly particularly well adapted for this level of change. Not even those of us who welcome it and try to change with it, surfing on the surface of the change like somewhat adroit acrobats.

Look, human beings, evolutionarily, weren’t designed for rapid changes in circumstances. Those are usually known as cataclysms.

Sure we conquered the globe and adapted to many different environments, but we did it over generations, slowly, where each one moved incrementally towards the goal. It’s not like in cartoons where an ape came down from the trees, shaved and got a briefcase and went to work.

In many ways we’re in no way adapted to the environment we created, which is funny, except in the sense it’s not funny at all.

I meant to go indie back in 2011. Only health intervened, and made it almost impossible to JUST fulfill my traditional contracts. Which means while I was sitting forcibly out of the game, and biting my nails, I spent a lot of time observing.

Sometimes I’m still struggling with it.

Because you’re so used to seeing things one way that you have to keep recalibrating just to remind yourself that things have changed.

Take for instance organized fandom and cons. They used to be the lifeblood of your career. And of course, you thought — or assumed — this was because you made fans that way.

It’s entirely possible this was never true. As I detailed yesterday, part of the thing was that book selling and book publishing had become symbionts, jointly deciding what would be published AND seen. As an author, what you saw was not necessarily what was happening.

So you saw that going to conventions and particularly seeing your publisher/editor (which is why big cons like worldcon, world fantasy and now Dragon were/are important for those in the trad publishing game) led to bigger laydowns and sales, and you made it a point to attend.

In my case, seriously, I wish I had back all those summer weekends spent at worldcon. Best decision I ever made was to stop attending and, instead, start going to Denver to the amusement park with the boys. And I regret all the Halloweens we left them with babysitters to attend world fantasy.

Sure, it kept my career going, at least for a while, but if I knew then what I know now. Never mind. If I knew then what I know now, beyond minimal publication to keep the boys in shoes and vacations, I’d have spent my time writing books to come out in indie as soon as possible.

Because it turns out conventions have bloody nothing to do with selling to the public. In fact, the public that attends conventions, and even the public that will talk to an author on facebook or online are not the same public that buys masses and masses of books.

It’s like the old explanation of parallel worlds, you know: two worlds, side by side, one much larger than the other, and each operating by completely different rules, each unaware of the other.

What I’ll call gatekeeper world, because it encompasses both publishing, bookstores, and to an extent, conventions, is contracting. There are more and more people looking for sins and looking to destroy those who commit them. This applies to anything from an inconsidered tweet to a character they don’t like in a book. For instance I was recently told that female characters should have no flaws. I have also recently come across a bunch of reviews of my books which try to divine things like what kind of man I like from my books. (Which btw is a step beyond insanity. I write men my female characters will like. I already have a man, thank you so much.) Anyway, amid all this nonsense, they have completely forgotten they’re in the business of selling books. So books are more and more indistinguishable from “moral tracts on the condition humans should have” and — unexpectedly — sell less and less.

My friends still trad only are scrambling to stay employed and reporting lower and lower advances.

Meanwhile in indie, people are thriving that I never heard of, and you haven’t either.

People who started writing less than three years ago are making multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even in my circles where everyone reads voraciously, have never actually made the radar. They are unknowns. Just rich unknowns. Certainly no one at cons ever heard of them.

Because I’m curious and of an exploratory type of curiosity I’ve sampled some of these authors. Yes, many of them are clumsy and badly written. Not all though. Only some.

The thing to remember though is that they are well written enough. Well written enough for what?

Well, well written enough to sell. If you go back and read Burroughs, say, you’ll find that he was not a particularly good writer on the word level. What he was was a great storyteller, often by violating every known rule, including telling you a vast amount of how things should be, instead of showing how they were. But it worked, and obviously he was to the taste of his contemporaries.

What I see in indie is, weirdly, like a return to the old days of pulp. Novels are shorter. They start somewhere around 30k and usually top out at 50k. An 80k word book is rare, and 100k plus very rare.

The reason for this actually makes sense. The change in book length was driven, more than anything, by the need to make a book large enough to sell for $5 — later $8 — dollars for a paperback. They could fudge it some. A friend who did very well never could write more than 65k, but her books were printed with larger type. But less than that? no.

So, books are returning to the size that most people can consume at one sitting or in an afternoon.

More surprising is the plotting. Let’s just say I’m starting to doubt that the public’s tastes ever changed away from pulp. Grand adventures, improbable events, big battles seem to take the day. The carefully crafted lengthy stories of interior development traditional publishing favored? not so much.

In romance, sure there’s still a space for sex, but most of the romances doing really well are not ALL about the sex, as traditional publishing had become there, ten years ago. And there is a vast and lucrative niche of “traditional romances” by which you should understand stuff in the Heyer tradition with little more than a kiss.

In fact “things traditional publishers hated” are a good way to make the big money in indie: Romances without sex, space opera, mil sf, cozy mysteries.

It turns out all these things they told us no longer sold, didn’t in fact sell, but not because the public didn’t want them, no. It was instead because the public didn’t get to see them. The publishers decided what the public would see, and the publishers decided these weren’t “worth” selling.

I don’t know how much of that was in conjunction with most publishers being the graduates of a few select colleges who viewed it as their job to enlighten the benighted, and how much it was simply “I want to brag about what I publish at parties, and my friends hate this stuff.”

What I know is that they no longer have any say on what sells and doesn’t sell.

And that there’s a whole parallel universe out there they’re not even aware of and can’t influence.

And that it’s worth exploring and seeing what’s there.

Which by itself is a pulp plot.


Reprinted from According To Hoyt blog for March 6, 2019

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