The Business Rusch: Priests and Mathematicians
I’m a political junkie. I read everything on politics I can get my hands on—and no, I will not allow political discussions on my blog. This is a politics-free zone. So if you put your political viewpoints in the comments, I will not approve that post.
I start this way, because this blog post comes from one of the Washington Post’s political bloggers. Chris Cillizza interviewed longtime Republican consultant, Mike Murphy, about the party. (I’m not going to link to the blog to keep the politics to a minimum. You can find it on your own.)
Murphy used terms that I hadn’t seen before in that particular context. I leaned back and thought about his definitions, and applied them to the field of literature I know the best, which is science fiction. I’m teaching an sf craft course right now, and we’ve been talking about the opinions, changes, and history of the field.
But as I applied the definitions to science fiction, my brain raced ahead of me, and I realized that Murphy’s terms apply not just to the literature of the field, but to the business of publishing as well.
Murphy is describing organizational dynamics, and if I weren’t teaching a course, I’d investigate to see if the terminology is unique to him or if he acquired it from someone else like I just did. I have no time, so I’m crediting Murphy.
The terms he uses are these: mathematicians and priests. He defines them according to the party, so I can’t quote him directly (to follow my own political rules). But here’s the upshot:
Both groups agree on overall defining principles. In publishing, those principles are pretty simple: we love books and reading. We believe that people should read books, and we believe that good books should get to readers. Since we’re in business, we also believe that everyone involved in the act of publishing should be able to make money from their work in this industry. We are constantly striving to make things better for books and book people.
We differ on how to go about living our bookish/publishing lives.
The Priests believe in the High Church of Literature. Literature is something pure, something holy, something definable. Standards, quality, the best, the brightest—the Priests believe all of those terms have definitions that we can all agree about. A good book, according to the Priests, follows certain rules. Bad books do not.
Priests believe that quality is separate from what the readers want. Readers need to be guided to quality literature and once readers discover quality literature, they will never return to the bad books (or to no books at all)
The most essential part of a Priest’s belief system is that literature needs curators. Those curators have defined roles. The teacher (professor) shows a potential writer what quality truly is. The teacher (professor) also teaches the reader what quality is, opening the reader’s eyes to “good” literature.
The writer struggles in the dark, but does not achieve quality on her own. She does know, however, what quality is, and will bring others on board to help her achieve quality.
The editor refines and improves the quality of a writer’s manuscript, by “honing” the words and fixing “infelicities.” Eventually, the editor becomes a champion of the material and takes a bit of ownership in the final product—even if that ownership has nothing to do with money. The editor puts his stamp on the final book, often claiming the book would not exist without the strict hand of editorial guidance.
The critic culls through the dross of material and locates the quality literature. Often the critic shows where the editor and writer failed to achieve quality. More often than not, however, the critic will place his stamp on the product, like a seal of approval. If enough critics agree that the book is quality, then the book receives award nominations and sometimes becomes the book to read for People In The Know.
The bookseller/librarian also reads the dross and finds the quality literature. Often, the overworked bookseller/librarian relies on the critic and a few select editors to help weed through the bad books. The bookseller/librarian then ensures that the quality literature finds its way to the shelves.
Often the bookseller/librarian will put the book in a place of prominence on the shelf, often with a “Staff Recommends” label. Some booksellers/librarians publish newsletters or blogs that achieve the same purpose.
These people ensure that literature remains in good hands, that it is worthy, and that the literature receives the attention it deserves.
The Mathematicians believe in “reality.” Numbers are all important, from income to sales to statistics reflecting readership. Mathematicians do not believe in a church of literature. Instead, mathematicians believe that sales define what’s good or bad. If a book sells, then it is by definition good. If it does not sell, then it is by definition bad.
If there are curators, those curators are the sales partners, from the bookstores to the distributors to the delivery systems. But Mathematicians really don’t look at the curators.
Mathematicians are looking at measurable results.
Before the recent changes in publishing, the battle between the Priests and the Mathematicians took place inside publishing houses. When publishing houses were small, independent concerns—before the mergers of the 1970s and 1980s—there was an uneasy truce between Priests and Mathematicians.
The Priests handled the acquisition and development of books; the Mathematicians handled the sales of the books. The two groups stayed out of each other’s way. The Mathematicians did not understand the arcane language of non-measurable quality, and the Priests believed that numbers did not reflect on the literature at hand. In fact, Priests believed that quality would “rise to the top,” if only the Mathematicians allowed the sales to develop. If enough curators had their hands on the right books, Priests said, then the numbers would grow.
Mathematicians believed that numbers did not lie, that it didn’t matter how many curators loved a book, if the book did not sell over a defined period of time, it was no good.
This uneasy truce lasted for decades. The mergers started. The corporations got swallowed up by non-readers, by non-publishing people, people who did not hold to the principles I mentioned at the start.
The corporations—which had become conglomerates—believed in the Great God of Quarterly Profits who governed the God of Stock Prices who kept an eye on the God of the Corporate Bottom Line.
These Unbelievers didn’t care if they were selling quality books or blank books, so long as those books turned a profit. Worse, the unbelievers downsized both Mathematicians and Priests without regard to the impact on the literature itself. The unbelievers saw only profits, and if profits could be achieved with good books or bad books, or with no books at all, then so be it.
The Priests thought the Mathematicians had won. But the Mathematicians had a closer handle on reality here. They realized that the Unbelievers had destroyed the delicate balance, and might, in fact, harm the publishing industry both Priests and Mathematicians held dear.
Then the changes in publishing hit, like a wave from the outside, stirring up everything.
The Priests continued their arguments for curators and for quality, believing that nothing good could come out of an unregulated system. Even the books acquired from the chaotic new e-book industry needed an editorial eye to improve them. Priestly editors claimed that their unseen hand improved previously published bestselling indie-published e-books by suggesting changes, additions, and “editing.”
Those books which moved from uncurated to curated still did not receive great attention from the critics who refused to agree that these books were quality, but at least the books were worthy of lower ranking within the High Church of Literature.
The Mathematicians got very confused. Most were no longer in traditional publishing at all. Those that remained ruled their little fiefdoms and became curators of their own. These Curator-Mathematicians, who could speak to the Unbelievers, would control which books got sent to market. But these Curator-Mathematicians were still working on future sales, not actual sales, and were attempting to predict future numbers by looking at past performance, without looking at all of the variables.
The Unbelievers wanted their profits, and started to get them again once the dust settled, by changing contracts with writers, and raking in huge profits on the digital side—charging paper book prices for an e-book license, as if those e-books had the same kind of production costs as the paper books.
Paper books, e-books, blank books, the Unbelievers didn’t care as long as they earned money.
But while this was going on in the halls of traditional publishing, something else happened. Many Mathematicians climbed out of the woodwork, those who had abandoned traditional publishing as non-sensical. These Mathematicians looked at sales figures for books that went direct to the consumer. They also looked at the places without local churches (bookstores) and at the way those who believed in reading got their fix. The Mathematicians discovered online book sales—both paper and e-book—and realized that numbers, once under the control and approval on an industry that never looked at the people in the pews, were now available to everyone.
The surprise wasn’t how few people came to the Church of Reading, but how many. The thing that appalled the Priests, though, was how many of the people in the pews ignored the sanctioned texts for bad books.
To the Priests, reading bad books is a sin. Publishing bad books is an even worse sin.
Mathematicians believed that all reading was good, that no books were bad, and that the best books had the highest sales. Mathematicians looked at quantifiable numbers—from sales revenue to sales numbers to number of readers—and claimed that each reading chair was a church, and each reader his own priest of his own personal church.
Interestingly, in this new model, the Unbelievers still had a role, but their role was to provide distribution. As always, the Unbelievers didn’t care if they sold quality books or blank books so long as the Unbelievers made a profit. The profit could be made from thousands of writer/publishers or that profit could be made from big conglomerates.
For this new group of Unbelievers, books were the exact same thing as t-shirts, and just as unimportant. Only here, the Unbelievers really didn’t enter the doctrine of publishing at all. They just provided the roads on which the books traveled to their particular destinations.
The arguments went back to the pre-conglomerate era. The Priests claim that only the priesthood knows what quality literature is, and the average reader must be protected from the bad book. The Mathematician believes that the average reader will buy more books if allowed to determine what good or bad is on his own.
Right now, both sides are struggling, fighting each other, and not realizing that the ground is shifting under their feet.
Me, I read those definitions in that political article, thought about the publishing changes, and realized that I am both a Priest and a Mathematician. I believe in many aspects of the High Church of Literature. I want someone to proof-read a book; I want a branded cover; I want someone to give the writer feedback before a book hits the market.
I also read a variety of critics—admittedly self-chosen, and not sanctioned by the real church. These critics have tastes similar to my own and curate other books for me, making recommendations based on the tastes I share with those critics.
However, I am and always have been a Mathematician. I believe that numbers tell a large part of the story of any organized system. But numbers do not tell the whole story. For example, sales will show which books are the most popular. That’s part of the story. The rest of the story is in the phrase left out from the first statement. Sales show which books are the most popular among the books published.
The illustration is this: Pretend there are 500 readers in the world. For those 500 readers, ten books get published. All ten will be read. But one will become a favorite of a large portion of the 500 readers.
Now, imagine that 500 books get published. Will each of the 500 readers read only one title? Will all 500 books become favorites? Will all of them even get read? No. But favorites will emerge. However, they won’t sell as well as the favorite book when only ten books got published.
Here’s where the number system remains in flux. No one knows the potential number of readers because no one has studied this. Not in the US, not in the English-speaking world, not in the world at large. We measure literacy rates, but we do not measure the rates of readers versus non-readers.
This is new territory.
And we cannot define quality according to the Priest’s precepts. But the Mathematician’s precepts are falling apart as well.
We don’t understand the system any more.
We need a new way to figure out success or failure, quality or crap.
Those concepts may be very old-world. They may have no meaning inside this new reality.
We’re like survivors of a great war, a settled war, screaming at each other from our divided battle lines, while the rest of the world—the children born after the peace—watch in confusion.
The world is what it is, and it isn’t what it was.
The old arguments are still being made, but they don’t apply.
We are now Priests of our own High Church; We are Mathematicians using numbers to determine our own quantifiable measures of quality.
And yet here’s what we forget. We are all Believers. We agree on our overall defining principles.
We love books and reading.
We believe that people should read books.
We believe that good books should get to readers.
We also believe that everyone involved in the act of publishing should be able to make money from their work in this industry.
We are constantly striving to make things better for books and book people.
It’s really that simple—and that easy to forget.
I love the ecumenical nature of blogging—the fact that anyone, no matter what they believe—can find and read something for free on the screen. This blog is not curated, however. It’s me, unfiltered, which makes it unpredictable, even to me.
My time, however, is not free.
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“The Business Rusch: Priests and Mathematicians” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.