Business Musings: Buggy Whips, Pollsters, Collisions, and Us
- In Which I Explain Why I Nearly Throw in The Towel. Or Part of the Towel. Or One of the Towels. Or Something Resembling A Towel.
I’ve been very frustrated in the last several weeks because some of my preconceptions got blown out of the water. I’ve been dealing directly with some traditionally published writers for various projects, and some of the things I’ve encountered have been head-shaking. I’ll be blogging about a few of those things in the future, with the names changed to protect the—innocent? Ignorant?—I’m not sure which label to use.
Suffice to say some of the things I’ve run into are simply and completely unbelievable to me, in 2016.
At the same time, I’m being approached by a number of traditionally published writers who believe they will never get another book deal, and their careers are ruined forever. Ruined! They’re lowering themselves to consider self-publishing, and are wondering if I can tell them how to do it, step by step. They get peeved when I show them entire books on the subject, not just mine and Dean’s, but several other books.
And then there are the writers who are giving up their writing careers entirely, because they can’t sell another book traditionally, and they have been told by the agent who helped them self-publish their books that the books aren’t selling because of piracy.
There are teeth marks in my lips, deep ones. I try to be diplomatic. Honest I do. But I got so frustrated with one writer recently that I had to walk away from my computer. The writer’s career was hurt by theft, but the theft wasn’t the pirating site she had found: it was her agent.
But I’m not going to say that in e-mail, although I did point her to several blogs I wrote about agents and agent agreements and how easy it is for a middleman to embezzle and/or not send royalties she doesn’t know she’s entitled to, particularly when she signed documents letting the agent get all the paperwork.
She can’t even double-check her employee, to make sure that he’s handling the money properly. That’s Money Management 101. And she was flunking.
I walked away from that e-mail exchange and started a blog post with the title, “You Can Lead A Writer To Knowledge…” The rest of that saying is this:
You can lead a writer to knowledge but you can’t make her think.
I came up with it in the late 1990s when Dean and I began our classes for professional writers whose careers had stalled. So many writers came to the classes, took notes, eagerly asked questions, found solutions—and did none of it. Or, in the case of a few, did exactly what we had said would get them in the most trouble.
One writer actually said that they believed there was no way Dean or I could have been telling the truth about the terrible contracts, the bad royalty statements, and which companies/agents to avoid. So that writer decided to test all of that out themselves. And then ran to us when that writer’s career imploded a second time, all because they had done the opposite of what we said.
I washed my hands before Dean did. That particular writer was never going to learn. Unfortunately that writer wasn’t alone. There are a lot of writers like that.
And because I’m crammed right now, and the level of stupidity I’ve been dealing with on the traditional side has been so egregious in the past few weeks, that I decided to chuck it all.
Not the blog, not at all.
But writing the part of the blog designed to help the writers who remain stuck in traditional publishing.
I’m washing my hands of all of them, I said to myself. I’ve been doing this since 2009. They have had the information at their fingertips ever since—not just from me, but Author Earnings and other writers who talk about their freedom, their renewed income, their freedom, their renewed love of writing, their freedom – oh, and did I mention? Their freedom.
If writers want to earn a long-term living in fiction these days, the best way—and I’m beginning to think the only way—is to go indie.
So, I started to write that blog post with the “You Can Lead…” title, and stalled. So I tried it again another week, and stalled again. And I tried it this past week, because I was so damn mad at the sheer unwillingness of these writers to see what was going on—
And then, my weird brain kicked in, and I realized why these writers hadn’t gotten the memo.
I’m going to try to explain it to you, but you’ll have to bear with me. The only way I can do it is to show you how my rather bizarre thought processes work.
- A Peek Into Kris’s Brain
I’m highly distracted right now. In addition to my usual writing, I’m putting the finishing touches on an anthology which is due next week, promoting some projects (Storybundle! Thursday is/was the last day!), dealing with some business stuff I’d rather ignore, and preparing for a workshop that starts on Saturday and for which I have to read 250+ manuscripts by professional writers.
All this while I’m trying to keep up with the changes in the publishing industry, which occur damn near daily. I’m reading histories of other entertainment industries who’ve gone through some of this stuff ahead of us, and I’m actually wearing out pens because I’m underlining so much. (I read nonfiction in paper form; a lot of fiction in digital form.)
I’m also a political junkie, so I spend much of my “free” reading time on various websites about statistics and politics. I spend a scattered moment here and there texting my political junkie friends (because we don’t dare talk on the phone; we would get nothing else done).
Important Side Note: I will not discuss politics on this blog or elsewhere. If you make a political comment, it will be deleted. If you make more than one so only I can see it, you will be blocked from commenting here. I do not care what you think about U.S. politics. Got that?
When I’m distracted, everything collides in my head. I end up with a bunch of realizations, all of which come from the collision of ideas.
This week, the all of the realizations that came to me were about how difficult it is to dismantle a worldview even if it’s in someone’s best interest to do so. Even when the evidence is so overwhelming that it should be (note I said “should be”) impossible to ignore.
I read a mountain of political blogs every day. I consume political news on damn near every form of media. I listen to the bloggers and the radio commenters; I watch too many members of the chattering class on TV; I read newspapers and statistical websites, comment boards and magazine articles; and I talk to some of the people involved in the campaigns and the press because—hello!—I know them from my days as a journalist.
And lately, everyone—it seems—is talking about the fact that a couple of candidates are doing better than expected despite their lack of a “ground game.” A “ground game,” in American politics, means a local organization, one that will contact local voters to get them to the polls.
America is a huge country, with lots of regions that are as different from each other as the countries in Europe are from each other. The culture of one region of the U.S. isn’t just unusual in another; it’s often unknown.
So, in addition to a national campaign, a national candidate needs to appeal to the subset voters, the regional ones, the ones who are different from the ones he’s familiar with in his own subset.
Having a ground game sounds like a simple and sensible way to do that. But most of the things that politicians and their handlers define as “ground game” is definitely old-school—flyers in doors, buttons for supporters, signs for lawns. A lot of the poor ground-game workers are supposed to go door-to-door to get support for the candidate, to talk to the undecided voters, and make sure they decide for that particular candidate.
I am so struck by that this whole ground game concept still survives in 2016. Politicians don’t need much of a ground game. Ground games are so 1950s. In some ways, you could argue that ground games are very 1850s (although that’s a terrible decade to point to, given what came next).
For many of us, the in-person political conversations have migrated online. As I mentioned above, I’m communicating with my political junkie friends—in Wisconsin and New York and Washington State. I have a political junkie friend in the town where I live. We’re on opposite sides of the spectrum and we don’t try to convince each other. We just inform or enlighten our sides.
But for the most part…online. I also see the casual stuff—who is supporting what, and why, and I can click through and find out even more on my own.
The chattering class often worries that “young people” don’t get their information the old-fashioned way, and mention “digital natives” which shows how stuck the chattering class is in early 2000s. Study after study have shown that the digital divide isn’t age-based as much as it is income based.
Poorer neighborhoods don’t have easy access to the devices that are internet portals. Old-fashioned ground games help in those neighborhoods, although a lot of people who live in those neighborhoods know how to get internet access—they just have to travel to it.
But the regional and neighborhood differences stand, and so do other differences. The campaigns that work datamine information. They also use the internet to go direct to the voters in ways never done before.
The ground game is no longer the be-all and end-all of campaigning like it was as recently as fifteen years ago. The chattering and political classes are confused, in a way that’s very familiar to me, the fiction writer.
Which was partly how this caught my attention.
That whole ground game/familiarity thought process was going on as I was reading a months-old New Yorker article by Jill LePore on the art of polling.
Public opinion polls came to prominence in the 1930s. They reached their technical zenith in the middle of the 20th century and have been on the decline ever since. The methodology used in most polls dates from the days when 90% of the people contacted actually responded to the poll. These days, according to LePore, “a typical response rate is now in the single digits.”
Yet there are more polls than ever, and with incredibly suspect methodology. It’s hard to contact people these days, ironically enough. Randomly calling land lines no longer works, there is no phone book for cell phones, and online polls are self-selecting (which really negates methodology).
This is why one set of polling in the 2012 presidential election showed on the eve of the election that Obama would lose—1930s technology doesn’t fit in a 21st century world.
And yet, everywhere you see polling after polling after polling “showing” the state of this race or that public opinion question. Not because polling is the best way to get the answers—but because it’s what people both know and are used to.
Polling is part of the infrastructure of modern life. But here’s what caught me in LePore’s article: I had never given the start of polling any thought at all. I work inside history all the time, and I’m trained as a journalist, and I just accepted the existence of polls, flaws and all.
Yet, when it started, polling was met with such great suspicion that Congress kept trying to investigate the pollsters. Much of what the article mentions—the suspicion, the fear, the nastiness—was because of the new technology, not the methodology.
It took years for polling to become an accepted part of American political life. Now, it’s ubiquitous—and mostly useless—part of the old-fashioned way that most people involved with politics still talk about politics.
While I was reading that, I’ve also been reading the Scribner hardcover edition of Greg Kot’s 2009 book Ripped: How The Wired Generation Revolutionized Music. I’m not that far into it—for obvious reasons, I think–but the book is one giant underline right now. The similarities in attitude of the music industry’s public response to the digital music revolution and the publishing industry’s public response to the ebook revolution are almost identical.
The little piece of Ripped, though, that collided with pollsters and ground games and the chattering class is this quote made shortly after Napster’s demise from guitarist and music producer Steve Albini:
Who’s going to control digital distribution? That’s like asking who’s going to control the sunlight. The Internet exists like air, and I and everybody else have very little control over its direction. The record industry is making a fundamental mistake by thinking they can lasso this thing and make it work for them. [P. 41]
The mistake the record companies made over a decade ago is the same mistake traditional publishing has been making the last few years. But that’s actually a digression because I’m talking about writers here, and what’s going on with them, particularly the traditionally published ones.
- Lost in an Ancient Infrastructure
Most people don’t seem to have the ability to step back, see change, and extrapolate what that change means. They are able to see the change. They might even know it’s massive. But they can’t figure out how that change will impact them even as it is impacting them.
I’m lucky that I’m a science fiction writer. I learned how to look forward for my job. Or maybe I write sf because I extrapolate forward. Or, perhaps, it’s because of the peculiar way my brain collisions work.
What I do know is this: The world we’re born into feels like the one and only world. It’s not. There are, depending on how you count it, 196 independent countries in the world, all different from each other. And inside those countries are smaller communities. Regions are different from each other, and customs are all different.
But humans are pretty much the same under the skin, and we, as children, learn to navigate that world we were born in. We understand that the world will change, but we don’t really understand it until decades later, looking back at what was.
We also don’t know, in depth, what happened before we got some kind of awareness of a particular thing. Writers who came of age after ebooks surged already have a different perspective on the publishing world than those of us raised in a monolithic publishing environment, where the path to publishing was so set that Dean and I could teach it in role-playing game form and be relatively certain our game mimicked the world exactly.
Many of us moved past that world quickly, for a variety of reasons. Some of us saw the writing on the wall and tried to figure out how to use the change to our advantage. Other people went to epublishing because their traditional careers were over. Still others finally felt free enough to publish their first book.
But we were the minority. We hurried to the new technology and struggled to understand it. Most of the writers in the world ignored it completely, letting their traditional publishers and agents tell them how the system “actually” worked.
That perspective was filtered through the ancient infrastructure by people who wanted to lasso sunlight. I keep thinking of it this way: It’s as if these people are hitting their Model A automobiles with a buggy whip in order to make the cars go faster.
And here’s how all those pieces came together for me:
When it came to political polling, I was, until last week, just like those traditionally published writers who can’t imagine a world without traditional publishers. I figured polls—with all their flaws—had been around forever. I hadn’t realized that they were a new innovation within my parents’ lifetimes.
But…I didn’t have that problem with the whole concept of ground game. Every time I hear some politician or analyst or journalist wonder why candidates are doing well without a ground game, I feel the same frustration I feel with writers who can’t see that the best path for a career in 2016 is indie publishing.
I do shout at the TV (I’m a very vocal political junkie), Move into the 21st century, idiots! Why am I shouting? Because the evidence is all around these people—and here’s the most frustrating part—these people (many of whom I know or have followed for years) are smart. They have brains. Those brains are simply too busy elsewhere to realize that the infrastructure we all grew up in has shattered and become something else.
It’s hard to see, I know. Because parts of traditional publishing are still useful. I work within traditional publishing. I understand what I’m trying to do there, and what benefit it will have to my career.
If I’m driving a horse-drawn carriage, I might use a buggy whip. I know they’re still being manufactured, so someone is using them. The difference is that most people do not use them.
Does that mean I believe paper books will go away? Heavens, no. I think they’re a good technology, unlike, say, CDs. Paper books will be around for a very very long time—which is why some of this stuff I’m reading about the music industry does not apply.
But traditional publishers? Their portion of the industry will depend entirely on how quickly they can dump that lasso-the-sunlight model they have in their heads and can actually work within the world as it exists now.
To work within it, they have to understand it. And they don’t.
4. Stop Worrying about The Towel
Which brings me full circle to the writers who are stuck in that traditional mindset. I have to write some of them off because they truly don’t want to think about the changes. Their heads are deep in the sand, and will never emerge.
But, I realized, I need to continue blogging for all writers, not just the indie ones. Because every now and then, some writer’s head will pop out of that sand, and they’ll need some place to start their journey into the freedom that is indie publishing.
And as frustrated as I get with them, I’d like them to start here.
Until I thought about those two other industries, I had forgotten how hard it is to see past the infrastructure when you have lived inside it for decades—and have known nothing else.
What I’m seeing, particularly in the political side of things right now, is an industry (and I do mean industry) that doesn’t understand the change it finds itself in. I’m hearing a lot of the smart people in that industry start to question not just the small things, but the infrastructure itself—why isn’t the ground game working? Why are the polls off?
Those questions are the beginning of knowledge.
Sometimes, I think everyone should move at the same rate on the same issues as I do. But writers are like everyone else. They start questioning at their own pace, and when they do, they’ll search for answers.
They’ll find some of those answers here.
I’ll be focusing this blog a lot more on indie topics (except for the Deal-Breakers updates), but I won’t abandon the traditionally published after all.
No matter how frustrated I get.
One of the innovations that has made it easier for writers like me to make a living is the donate button that follows all of my nonfiction posts. Since I started doing this, newer and better ways to support writers have come along. But I haven’t had time to set them up.
So, I’m sticking with the old new innovation instead of the latest and greatest innovation, and I’ll repeat what I usually say:
If you have gotten anything out of the blog in the last few weeks, please consider donating. Thanks so much!
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: Buggy Whips, Pollsters, Collisions, and Us,” copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2016 by Canstock Photo/edharcanstock.