Business Musings: Facing The Future

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The initial title of this post was “Fighting The Future.” It came from a quote that I spent about a half an hour searching for. I had hastily scrawled the quote on a piece of paper while doing a dozen other things the past two weeks, but I didn’t cite the source. All I know is that the quote came from something I was reading, but what, exactly, appears to be lost to the wind.

I suspect the quote came from a book called Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears by Michael Schulman. The book is a dishy, but well-researched history of various parts of the Academy Awards. A lot of the book deals with the history of organizations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to the Writers Guild and beyond.

Many of these organizations came about in times of great technological change, because the creatives whose careers were going to be impacted by these changes wanted protection. In other cases, the creatives whose careers were impacted by the changes wanted to carve out the future, in a way that would help them dramatically.

It’s not always young creatives who are creating the future. It’s established creatives as well. Sometimes those of us who’ve been in the business for a while can see the future more clearly than those who are just stretching their artistic wings.

We’ve been through some of these wars before.

It’s also possible I had seen the quote in some of the coverage of the current Hollywood writers strike. All I know is that when I read the quote, I felt not only inspired, but I also felt the speaker’s sense of frustration.

The quote went something like this: No matter how hard you try, you can’t fight the future.

It’s a negative quote—You can’t—and I really didn’t want to go with that.

It’s true, though. You can’t fight the future. It will come for you, and it will come in unexpected ways.

Those of us who have lived through the past eight years know that very clearly. Things started to go off the rails for many of us in the United States in 2015. Other countries were off the rails before that, and some seemed to be chugging along just fine until 2020.

Then the future clobbered us. Hard. Thought things would go your way? The future asked in its best villain voice. Try adding a pandemic to your calculus.

Some of us eventually did add the pandemic to our calculus. The past always holds the key to the future, but not in ways that people expect.

People expect a road map from the past. A kind of if you do things this way, then that will happen. And oddly, in publishing, it remained like that for about forty years. That period of stability, in publishing in particular, was greatly unusual.

Stability isn’t the human condition. As the pithy little saying on this morning’s cereal box reminded me, the only thing we can count on is change.

Sadly, the way that the past holds the key to the future is by giving us imperfect examples of what had come before.

I remember vividly telling damn near everyone I knew that if we follow the road map set by the flu epidemic from 100 years ago, we wouldn’t see the end of the pandemic phase of Covid-19 for three years.

And I was right, almost to the day. What I didn’t say, though, was that protected communities—those that completely quarantined—got struck by later stages of the pandemic. Other places had built up immunity, but these isolated communities hadn’t, so they went through their own pandemic hell, some as late as seven years after the first case of the flu showed up in North America.

As I said, imperfect, and just a guideline. But still, something to look toward.

This week, The Washington Post had an article titled “The WGA strike is part of a recurring pattern when technology changes.” The article explored everything from the arrival of kinescope to television to streaming, and showed how, when technology changes, the industry had to change with it, whether the industry or the creatives who worked inside it like the changes or not.

Ironically, this article landed on the same weekend as a huge variety of scare headlines about AI. “AI is as big a threat as nuclear war!” screamed one. “AI’s creators are afraid of it!” screamed another.

And a dear clear-eyed friend on Facebook talked about ChatGPT and noted that we’re watching the world change. He also noted that we will see a lot of denial about it. Farther down the thread, he noted that we can’t stop the change, but we can figure out how we’re going to use it.

That’s the point of the scare headlines, by the way. They’re not wrong. In the wrong hands, AI will destroy everything we know and love, maybe even destroy the planet, if our science fiction colleagues from decades past are to be believed.

But that’s because these things—from AI to virtual reality—are tools. Tools are apolitical things. A hammer can assist with building a wall or it can tear down the same wall, depending on which part of the hammer you chose to use. But it can also kill someone, quite quickly and easily, with either side of the hammer.

In the wrong hands, quite literally, a hammer becomes a murder weapon.

I learned this lesson early, with words. My family was all about words. Words can create worlds. They can make a child feel loved. Words can also humiliate someone or even destroy them. Words are a tool, and that tool can be as destructive as a hammer to the head.

At Clarion, thanks to another clear-minded friend, I learned that I had learned the weaponization of words all too well. I had to learn how to speak kindly. I almost wrote all over again but that would have been wrong. I had to learn how to use words kindly in spoken speech for the very first time.

It is a learning curve, and it’s one I work on every day. (I also occasionally feel the urge to destroy with words—and I do, if confronted by a bigot (and my brain catches up to the situation quickly enough). I now use the weapon when a weapon is needed, and not in every day conversation.)

Commenters on my first friend’s Facebook post pointed out that the AI genie is out of the bottle, and our job now is to use these tools wisely and regulate them properly.

Yes, that will not stop the determined person who wants to misuse the tools, but it gives us resources to solve the problem.

Better folks than I am working on ways to control this part of the future. As I mentioned in “Lessons from the WGA Writers Strike” a month ago, the WGA is trying its best to prevent AI from destroying lives and livelihoods.

The sad thing is that it will not be 100% effective. It will get the best deal possible and negotiate a few points away that will cost someone a job somewhere. That’s one of the sad things about technological advancement. It will create jobs, sure, but at the cost of others.

This weekend as well, Neil Clarke issued the first draft of a position paper for the publishing industry, particularly the genre industry, to use. He’s frustrated that the publishing industry (particularly the genre organizations) have been slow to respond to this changing dynamic, so he is starting the ball rolling.

He’s asking for helpful comments. If you go there to pick a fight, you will be sent away.

We’re at one of the early stages of this particular change. It’s not the only change we’re going through. The pandemic caused a lot of unanticipated change. Climate change is also going to force many of us to change the way we live—not just how we live, but where and what we consider to be important in our futures.

There are a lot of other changes like that, some local, some regional, and some international. (The pandemic was unique in that it was completely global. Not even last century’s world wars were 100% global.) I suspect the world of 2035 will be completely unrecognizable from the world of 2015.

The future is inevitable. We need to face that.

Or, in the words of the now-lost speaker in the lost article, We can’t fight the future. We can’t, because we’ll lose.

I’ve been thinking about that as well, as I read all of Dean’s posts on being a new writer coming in. He spoke at two writers conferences this year, and each time, he realized that the new writers are getting conflicting and often bad advice from both the traditional and indie publishing industries.

He has written ten posts (so far) on the conflicting information. Start with this one, and then search for the others. They’re not always well marked.

Writer Ron Collins took on Dean’s posts in a post of his own. (Oddly, I agree with both Dean and Ron.) Ron has taken to labeling traditional publishing “Dependent publishing” and independent publishing as …well, independent publishing. It’s Ron’s phrase “dependent publishing” that really caught me, though, because that’s what it is.

Writers in the past were forced to rely on traditional publishers to get product out. The writers who are struggling the most with all of the changes are the ones who liked being dependent, the ones who liked having someone else take care of that messy business stuff. It really didn’t seem to matter to those writers that the people taking care of the messy business stuff often took advantage of that writer, never fulfilling any promises, skimming money off the top (which still goes on), or actively embezzling.

Nor did it seem to bother those writers that their career of “being taken care of” would have a short lifespan. Most “dependently published” writers, to use Ron’s phrase, back in the day had a career that lasted at most ten years.

Those writers never could figure out how to stop the inevitable decline of their fortunes. Only a handful of writers—and I do mean a handful; I can count them on one hand—who wanted to be taken care of had a career that lasted twenty or thirty years. That was a happy accident, usually caused by a lottery-style windfall that made all kinds of traditional publishers want a piece of that pie.

Thousands of other dependently published writers never went beyond the third book of their careers, although some of those writers still sell the occasional short story.

Still, though, there are hundreds of writers who want to get into that dependent publishing game. I no longer have pity for them, because the information on how to actually have a career as a writer has existed for a decade or more now.

Many of these writers stick their heads in the sand and will not listen to anyone tell them that their dream is not possible in 2023. Maybe if they’d started in 1990, they might have had a chance. Even then, they wouldn’t have lasted through the purge at the end of the previous century; most dependently published writers, especially those without business savvy, did not.

The writers with their heads in the sand aren’t really fighting the future. They’re fighting the present. Confront them with the possibilities—both good and bad—that the future holds, and they will bury their heads deeper. They’ll deny it all.

And honestly, they’re lost. They can’t be recovered. In some ways, they’re volunteering to be the ones whose livelihoods disappear (if they’re making a meager living at traditional publishing right now) or they’re volunteering to have their dreams destroyed.

It’s the writers who face the future who will survive. That’s why I chose this title. Because we might not understand what is coming at us. We might not even predict it all accurately.

But we are standing with our feet firmly planted in the present, aware of the way that the publishing industry (both dependent and independent) works now and we’re keeping a weather eye on all of those developments lurking in our future.

Yes, we’re guessing at what’s going to come. Many of us, like the Writers Guild, like Neil Clarke, are working to shape that future. Many others are figuring out where we will fit in what’s heading our way.

We can’t fight the future as much as we want to. History teaches us that. Those who deny that the world is changing or pretend the changes won’t have an impact on us will probably lose everything.

Those of us who understand that change is inevitable will survive. Those of us who are figuring out how to make that change work for us will do better.

Ron notes:

The chief development skill of an Independently Published writer, then, is listening. By that, I mean, taking in the thousand streams of information that seem to flow over them, and sifting out the wheat from the chaff.

He makes it sound so easy. It is for him. That was his training in his pre-writing career and it’s just his nature.

So many writers aren’t geared for listening to anyone. Others aren’t able to take “streams of information” and sift them. To many writers—heck, many people—sifting through information is impossible. It’s a learned skill, one that I discovered years ago when I hired really smart people who hadn’t gone to college.

I had not realized until then that the main skill college teaches isn’t some career path or how to take an exam. The main skill college teaches is the one Ron describes above: how to listen and then separate the wheat from the chaff.

People who have not had that experience or who rebelled against it and refused to learn it are not suited to an independent freelance career. Nor are they suited to any kind of career that lacks a set path with definable goals.

Writing used to have a set path with definable goals. Those goals weren’t easy to achieve, but they were understandable. Now it’s a choose your own adventure, which suits people like me. I like living that way, and I like trying to anticipate the future.

Most people don’t, though. Most people find this way of living very stressful.

I’ve come to the conclusion over the decades that some writers just need to be taken care of more than they need a writing career.

The rest of us, though, need to plant our feet in the present, turn our back on a past that never treated us very well in the first place, and face the future, whatever it might bring.

****

For a long time, Dean and I have tried to teach writers how to face the future. It isn’t just standing and staring at it. There is some active planning involved, even if that planning turns out to be somewhat wrong.

We’ve finally put that planning into an online class called “The Decade Ahead.” You can investigate it if you follow this link.

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“Business Musings: Facing the Future,” copyright © 2023 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Gajus

 

8 thoughts on “Business Musings: Facing The Future

  1. ‘ taking in the thousand streams of information that seem to flow over them, and sifting out the wheat from the chaff’ as an essential learning skill for the independent writer – at least I’m doing THIS right.

    And you’re one of my ‘streams.’

    I didn’t realize that’s what I’m doing when I follow bloggers and read posts and get information everywhere, every day.

    I have to – my brain insists – and I sense when it crosses over from essence to self-indulgence and procrastination, and hope to stop there and get back to the real work every day.

    As someone who insists on writing mainstream literary fiction as an indie (that lovely control!), I need all the nuggets I can find, because the purveyors of information for indie genre fiction are NOT writing for me, but sometimes drop a useful treat.

    Thanks for legitimizing it for me – it has always felt like a guilty pleasure/obsession. I NEED to be connected.

  2. A lawyer already got caught using ChatGPT to make his brief, loaded with fake citations. No one in the court was fooled and it was for a fairly sizeable case. I’m sure the client was beyond over the moon about this in the worst way because they had zero clue.

    Anytime that a lawyer, a profession where words are taken at their most literal sense and can even determine life or death, is using ChatGPT to do their job for them to cut corners, you can see how bad things can get.

    Also, the kicker? The lawyer thought everything was legit because he asked ChatGPT if everything was kosher and on the level. The AI said “yep” and the lawyer went right along with it. The lawyer’s defense: he said he didn’t know an AI could tell a falsehood.

    https://www.engadget.com/a-lawyer-faces-sanctions-after-he-used-chatgpt-to-write-a-brief-riddled-with-fake-citations-175720636.html

  3. Hi, Kris
    This chaos might be the result of technology. It’s been documented as eroding our attention span. But it’s also eroding our ability to learn and retain knowledge. There’s a culture of note-taking, which suggests that you take detailed notes so you don’t have to remember knowledge; then you can stumble across it and somehow magically, it creates the ideas for you.

    Knowledge work businesses claim they want new ideas, but they have trouble with anything that can’t be measured with metrics. Neither creativity or thinking can be measured (Cal Newport talked about this in his recent podcast), so the skills are eroding. Add to that, a lot of writers simply want someone to tell them what to do so they can treat (unfortunately) writing like they were in school passing a test—and there are plenty of “experts” to tell them. All the “expert” needs to do is hit the emotional button that a particular person needs. Once they do that, they can do no wrong.

    I dropped off the writing boards probably 10 years or more ago and am glad I did. I would hate to be caught up in this. Even reading and knowing it, it’s still all too easy to accidentally absorb some of the chaos.

  4. I am currently in middle of the the years-long process of shifting from the ‘follow the defined path’ mode of thinking to ‘choose your own adventure.’ This is partly spurred by the fact that my engineering career has hit the point where there is no defined path for further growth anymore, and partly because I also want a writing career where, as you mention, the future is very much what you yourself make it to be.

    That is to say, I very much like this change, tough as it is. I finally feel like I am controlling my own life instead of being controlled like one of the Sims in the video game of the same name. And while not knowing what the future holds is scary, it is the good kind of scary, like that feeling you get at the top of a rollercoaster just before the first drop. It’s time to put my hands up in the air and enjoy the ride.

    1. I come out of a corporate engineering path, too. So I feel your position. 🙂 I have a chapter in another book about the careers of writers vs. the corporate gig. I don’t think Dependently Published writers think about it this way, but they are actively courting entry-level positions in the same tournament system corporate workers live in.

      In the past, you had to play that game simply because the Houses owned the link to readers.

      That isn’t the case anymore.

      In that light, I find it interesting that a lot (but not all!) of the gnashing of teeth over AI’s arrival—which has been obviously inevitable for at least five years—comes from people inside the traditional structures of the industry and that most (but not all!) of the people trying to determine if and how they can use it to fuel their creativity are people from the Independently Published side of the spectrum. Maybe I’m wrong about that split. But it does seem that way to me (as I work to separate the wheat from the chaff in that area!). Along with all the other stuff that circulates AI, the adoption of new tools comes down to whether we can use them to better connect with readers or not.

      1. I am seeing a LOT of gnashing and torch-waving in the indie authors camp, personally. Folks willing to embrace AI tools in their publishing processes have to keep their heads down, currently, or risk the pitchforks coming out.

  5. I’m going to put in a plug for “The Decade Ahead”. I am learning so much about how to have a sustainable career amidst all the changes…

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