Who Goes There?!

So, the latest stray dog that everyone has been kicking is Laurie Gough’s misguided screed on The Huffington Post assaulting the idea of self-publishing. Now, it would be easy, so, so easy to join the dog-piling and point out things like Kiwi having a higher rank than any of her books, or point out that from all reports, while they might not be from a Vanity press, they are chock full of vanity. Or even the point that she’s writing for free for HuffPo. I mean, when both Larry Correia AND the readers at File770 are taking your article apart, you know you’re on the wrong track. (I don’t think anyone needs links from me to find these).

But I would like to address the main thesis of her piece, the idea that Publishing Industry Gatekeepers are the key to quality and that Self-publishing lacks them, therefore it is all crap (“An insult to the written word” in her terms). Now the easiest way to counter a universal claim like that is to pick out counterexamples. That’s already been done.

No, my point is that she is wrong about the lack of gatekeepers. There are actually more gatekeepers now than there are editors and publishers and agents in the entire publishing industry.

I’m talking about you, the reader – both individually and collectively. Individually, because you now have a vastly broader range of works to choose from. You are no longer constrained by the biases of a publisher and his marketing department telling him “Urban Fantasy is over,” when you still want to read about the corner bodega with the dragon instead of a cat. And collectively, through your actions on a site like Amazon. When you and all the other readers go to Amazon, you are informing each other about what is good or bad by what you buy, or not, as reflected by the Amazon ranking (conveniently divided by subgenre), and what else is good through the “Also Bought” mechanism. And individually, again, through your star ratings and reviews. Your actions are both informed by those who have gone before you, and they guide those who come after you.

Through this mechanism, the whole gatekeeping function has been crowdsourced, and the sheer number of people involved cancels out individual bias. Or rather, that bias has been channeled into more relevant recommendations.

But wait, there’s more. There are independent reviewers, people with their own blogs who help sort through what’s good, whether by trying to point out the Emperor’s truant trousseau, or daring the murky depths to bring up an overlooked pearl. Similarly, through reviews and reading lists posted to Goodreads, the internet has made word of mouth a primary source these days. Do you want to know if the latest Star Wars movie is worth seeing? Check FaceBook or Twitter or Gab (If you’re lucky enough to have gotten an account yet). And the best thing is, even though there are millions of people out there with differing opinions, chances are you’re already listening to the opinions of people you trust, who see things similarly to you. Whether it’s Larry Correia posting a “Book Bomb” or File 770 rounding up links to new books, you more than likely have already found a source of recommendations you are likely to follow.

True, Amazon and the Kindle have basically taken the slushpile and put it online, but you don’t have to go through it yourself, everybody else has already done it for you. And your reading choices are not being filtered by a bored, underpaid English Lit grad in a cramped New York office who is pining for the days of making lattés at Starbucks, who is the TRUE  Publishing Industry Gatekeeper, long before the Editor in Chief sees a word.

Papers, Please.

Today’s movement among the elite in the publishing industry to concentrate more on the ethnicity of authors, rather than the quality of their work is nothing new. I recently ran across an example of it dating back to 1938, with regard to JRR Tolkien.

When The Hobbit came out in 1937, things were headed for a pretty dark place in Europe, and in 1938, when a German Publisher wanted to produce a German translation of it, well, first they had to be sure of Herr Tolkien’s heritage, (After all, while it’s a fine German surname, who knows what could be corrupting his blood, right?) so they asked. His reply had that delightfully English way of twisting the knife.

From the source article:

25 July 1938
20 Northmoor Road, Oxford

Dear Sirs,

Thank you for your letter. I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.

Your enquiry is doubtless made in order to comply with the laws of your own country, but that this should be held to apply to the subjects of another state would be improper, even if it had (as it has not) any bearing whatsoever on the merits of my work or its sustainability for publication, of which you appear to have satisfied yourselves without reference to my Abstammung.

I trust you will find this reply satisfactory, and

remain yours faithfully,

J. R. R. Tolkien

The Publishing elite and the other SJW’s in the writing and fandom industries are insisting that the ethnicity of a writer is important. That white writers are writing too many white characters, and should include more diversity in the characters in their stories, while at the same time accusing them of cultural appropriation if they do, as well as somehow stealing opportunities for non-white authors in the process. They are unable to see the contradiction between these two demands, as they only have the attention span to focus on one at a time – the memory of one is forgotten by the time they switch to the other – whichever one they need to employ against the target-du-jour.

They seem to think that minority readers can’t possibly enjoy a story unless it has a main character who “looks like them,” and they blame this for declining readership in a demographic that has never had a particularly high reading rate historically (instead of blaming, say, inferior schools and cultural influences against reading).

Clearly this MUST be true, because lord knows, not being a female, tawny-furred, Hani completely prevented me from enjoying all of the Chanur books I could get my hands on. Minority readers must find this incredibly demeaning and patronizing. But those who take up the weapons of the Social Justice Warrior never do so to build things up, they do it to seize power from the destruction they wreak. They have been winning, at least until now, and the results speak for themselves.

Alas, after 20 years of creeping Social Justice being implemented by the NYC Publishing elite, shrinkage of the readership is exactly what is happening. Sales among the Big 5 are down and declining. Writer advances are down, even without correcting for inflation (which makes it even worse). More and more people simply are not reading for pleasure and spending their entertainment dollars elsewhere. Conclusion, this is not the method to grow the readership. Vetting writers by their ethnicity or other characteristics is a vile practice, and it was obvious to Tolkien. Why it is not obvious to everyone today is a tragedy of today’s culture.

There should be writing opportunities for ALL writers, regardless of ethnicity, but certainly with regard to ability to write. Judging a writer by anything OTHER than the ability to write is counterproductive.

More Validation

Not gonna comment on the Hugos, not yet anyway. But something did come up about one of the OTHER rules changes that are floating around at the Business Meeting. One of them, “A.4 Nominee Diversity”, sounds awfully familiar.  Despite the name, it isn’t SJW bait. It addresses one of my other suggestions from a year ago, but Implements it in a bass-ackward, voter disenfranchising way.

The idea, according the the camera shot of the projection screen I saw, was to stop a single author or TV show from dominating a category. I hadn’t really considered it an issue with authors, but Best Dramatic Presentation – Short Form was turning into “Which was your favorite episode of Doctor Who this season?” Their solution: If there are more than two works from the same show, or more than two books with the same author (or that have two authors in common for multi-author works), then the third and subsequent entries get dropped from the ballot and replaced with things from further down in the pack.

What that means is that if nearly everybody nominated 4 or 5 Doctor Who episodes, and a few other items filled in the rest, you could, in theory, when combined with the 5% rule, get a ballot with two Doctor Who episodes on it. Okay, I exaggerate, it’s an edge case, and who knows what the other anti-slate measures proposed would do to a set of nominating ballots like that… they could end up with nothing. Or maybe something that just cleared the 5% threshold would be on the ballot as the third highest nomination getter.

It’s a pretty distorted way to solve the real problem. Now, I hadn’t considered multiple books by the same author as a problem (I’m guessing this is just a reaction to a certain, *sniff*, undesirable writer getting 6 nominations in the past) but in terms of TV shows, my suggestion was to nominate a program, rather than an episode. That way, a show everyone liked could get a lot of nominations, rather than having them spread out over 4 or 5 different episodes, AND they would leave four other slots open. It just seemed fairer, and didn’t have this nasty aftertaste of eliminating things that people really liked. There’s just too much emphasis lately on finding reasons to replace things that got a lot of nominations with something that got fewer.

If there is hope, it lies in the Proles Fans

I am greeting with endless amusement the recent movement among Hugo circles to embrace three stage voting. This comes in the wake of the analysis of that ridiculously complicated system they proposed last year using last year’s data (which the rest of us mortals have no access to because they claim they can’t sufficiently anonymize it – yet they DID give it out….) turned out to not be as good at eliminating all the puppy candidates as they hoped.

I’m so amused, because anyone who’s read this blog knows that it was April last year in “So you want to Fix the Hugos…” where I first suggested three rounds of voting. For those who can’t be bothered to look, I proposed that there be a second round of ballots among the top N nominees (I said 25, but some categories won’t support that many) so that all of the fans who made nominations that were at the tail end of list would have a chance to have some actual input on what makes it to the Finals. This idea was soundly ridiculed by the folks who thought their multiply-renamed system was going to be a panacea.

You see, the reason I thought this would be a good idea is because one of the most common complaints among fans is “Nothing I nominated made it.” This leaves the fans feeling like they have no investment in the award. They aren’t interested in the results, they don’t vote again, and the voter pool remains small and, ahem, manageable. The problem all along has been that there are SO many candidates, and fannish tastes are so broad, that if one were to sort the nominating votes in order of popularity, you have one of those long asymptotic graphs. Dozens or hundreds of nominees who only got one, or a few votes, and then finally the top few who got dozens to hundreds of votes. But if you total it up, those top nominees still only got a small percentage of the total votes, on the order of around 10%. This was the vulnerability that made the Hugos susceptible to manipulation (And long before the Puppies came along). The part of that graph where 90% of the nominations exist has been referred to as the “Tail.” Part of the problem is that people have been spending WAY too much time looking at the “Head” of the list and trying to figure out how to knock out the nominees they don’t like that they’ve missed the obvious.

The problem, and it’s a problem common to most folks of a particular political vein, is that they’re trying to counter human behavior with Mathematics. This never works. But the other problem is that they’re ignoring the SOURCE of the data they’re feeding into their formulae — the Fans. The Fans are an incredible resource, and a solution to their problem that they are afraid to make use of, because fans are a Wild Magic, and unpredictable, and hard to control. Math is Safe, math is predictable, but math can’t tell you what is good SF (The Cold Equations notwithstanding).

Even with the Three Stage Voting idea, they’re coming at it all wrong. Some proposals involve “Negative Voting” which they want as a way of getting a gang together to knock out entries they don’t like (They do love them some of that No Award veto power!). They propose empowering the administrators to add or remove entries, or even remove individual voters they don’t like. It’s like they still don’t trust the fans to vote the “right” way. And let’s not even think about the canned Medusa’s head of their mathematical Slate Detection dream, which they swear would NEVER generate a false positive….

They also forget the axiom “Never give the [Government/ConCom] a power that you don’t want used against you.”

My answer is still the same as it was a year ago. Trust the fans, let them pick who should win the Hugo. Have a second round of voting to re-enfranchise those whose choices didn’t make it through the “Primary.” When the finalists are chosen by the entire electorate, rather than just the ones who voted for the top 10%, you really can’t argue with the decision being that of the Fans.

And for those who say “Where are they going to find the time to read the 15 semi-finalists?” They’re fans, what do you think they’ve been doing all year? Waiting for the Hugo packet to decide what to read? (Besides, you had no trouble before with people voting AGAINST things they hadn’t bothered to read in the last couple of rounds.)

Oh, and I’d also like to reiterate my other proposal, that Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form consist of nominating a PROGRAM that had a new episode in the target year, rather than individual episodes.

Don’t Pirate Indies

A buddy of mine has a very successful book series that he self-publishes on Amazon. Popular enough that he started earning “Quit Yer Job Money.” Although writing is actually a new job. The fans were voracious, and couldn’t get enough (Some even bitched when he tried to branch off and start a second series). Then one day, a week after a new volume came out and was flying off the virtual shelves, suddenly sales plummeted to about 10%, which killed his rise through the Amazon rankings – a key to getting new fans and continuing sales – and decimated his income. He had seen this pattern before. His new book had just been pirated. He went to the usual pirate sites and did his best to persuade them to take it down, but of course, the pirates were adamant. His sales were disappearing, but his bills were not. Now he is back in the day job market, which will slow down his writing, meaning the fans will have to wait much longer for new books. And that’s provided he doesn’t hang up his writer’s hat for good out of frustration.

Now, I understand a bit of what’s going on, there’s an awful lot of piracy going on out there, and yeah, in strictest terms, virtually every picture you’ve got on your phone or hard drive that you didn’t take yourself is some kind of copyright violation. I’m not going to go down that puritan road. But let me go through the usual excuses and explain why they don’t apply to indy books.

Information wants to be free! – Yeah, sure, the most facile argument of the bunch. Okay, the information should be accessible, but who is going to pay the person who went through the effort to gather it? Hey, Global Temperature data is out there, all you need is a thermometer. Oh, you don’t want to go measure it yourself? You want to get someone else to do it? Either get volunteers or pay someone. Making someone a volunteer after the fact, involuntarily, by not paying them for their work… there’s a word for that.

But Big Corporations make all kinds of money, what’s it matter to them if I pirate a copy of Photoshop? – You know, on an individual scale, that’s probably true. Lots of people took advantage of the “Free” Creative Suite 2 “mistake” Adobe made where they published lists of valid product keys and provided downloads of what is in reality, 10 year old versions of their products, with the winking assertion that it was only for people who actually bought it because the authentication server was being shut down. Technically, if you grabbed that without owning the product, you’re a pirate. (It’s now behind a sign-up wall, and pirates are a little less willing to put their real names up for that kind of thing). Frankly, it was probably a shrewd marketing move that also takes the pressure off their newer products. But, when it comes to industrial scale software piracy like what comes out of China, yeah, that’s a significant problem, which is why they aren’t going to come after you for that single copy you use non-professionally five or six times a year. But this is also why we don’t really own software any more, and have DRM out the wazoo and license codes and online verification servers that screw us when things go wrong.

But I’m broke! – No, you’re not, you just can’t prioritize, or childishly can’t manage your budget. We’re talking an e-book in the $2.99 to $5.99 range. Hell, Comic books are about that much apiece these days. You just bought the latest video game for enough to buy TEN eBooks. You could stock a library for what you spent on that Con. Give up ONE Latte? (Furries are particularly notorious for pleading poverty when their favorite artists put out a $10 portfolio, then drop $50 for a single commission of their personal character in some sexual position – go fig.)

Hey, I’m doing you a favor, it’s free publicity! – Bullshit. In my friend’s case, it’s costing him plenty – hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Free publicity is writing reviews, having discussions, all that stuff they call “Word of Mouth”, and actually BUYING the book so that its Amazon Rankings go up. If you actually Love the author’s work, why are you destroying it?

But you pirate Anime, you hypocrite! – Anime fandom is pretty unique when it comes to piracy. They make the effort to be symbiotic rather than parasitic. They know not to kill the golden goose. For one thing, Fansubbers add value – they put actual work into doing translations. They also target a market that the original publishers do not, foreign languages. The popularity of a particular fansub is often used as an indicator of which shows will resonate with the American market, and can be beneficial when it comes to negotiating licensing deals. And the producers actually know this, and allow it, because they know the value to adds to their offering. But the single biggest difference is that once a show is licensed in the US Market, the torrents come down. The fans stop circulating the tapes. They don’t cannibalize their own fandom, and often buy the dubbed DVDs of the shows they liked as Fansubs. In short, they don’t fuck over the creators.

Unlike the Anime Fans, the book pirates are not adding any value to the things they are stealing. The financial justification isn’t there when eBooks are so cheap. And they are NOT hurting a “Big Corporation.” Amazon only gets about 30% of the book price for eBooks in that price range, 70% of the money you’re stealing from the author you claim you love. Wanna prove it? Find the author’s web page, and see if they have a PayPal button, and send them 70% of the cover price and an apology for costing them rankings and not giving them a positive review.

Of course, a lot of these pirate hosts don’t actually read the books, they just want bragging rights to having the most files, or the fastest release times, or most downloads (that is, if they’re not actually Russian Mafia sites looking to infect your computer with Botware). They don’t love your favorite author, and they couldn’t care less if he’s driven out of writing by the financial losses they cause. There will always be hopeful new writers whose dreams they can uncaringly crush.