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Posts from the ‘Random Thoughts’ Category

End of the Blogging Vacation & Design Changes Coming


So about two months ago, I mentioned that I was going to be taking a bit of a vacation from blogging here. Well, what was originally going to last about a month has turned into two. To be fair, during that long vacation I wrote some of the most discussed entries in the history of this blog, but nevertheless, I have been taking it easy here while dealing with a ton of real-life stuff. In the offline world, we sold our house and moved about 20 minutes closer to New York City, so it’s been a rather busy month.

But now that we’re all settled into our new abode, now that the books are unpacked (still unorganized, but at least they’re not in boxes any longer), I’m going to be back here on my regular weekly schedule. Also, don’t be surprised (or too concerned) if the look of this blog changes a little in the coming days and weeks, since there are bunch of design tweaks I’ve been meaning to get to. If I break something in my design experiments, rest assured I’ll be around to fix it shortly!

Forthcoming design changes notwithstanding, as of this Tuesday (July 30th) I’ll be back to posting an essay every Tuesday as per usual. I hope you’ll join me!

PSA: Fourth Street Fantasy 2013


I’ve been looking forward to this weekend for the past year. Why? Because this weekend is the annual Fourth Street Fantasy convention. I first went last year, and found it to be a weekend full of fascinating genre discussions, in-depth literary conversation, great music, and wonderful fun. I got to see old friends and make new ones, and it was also the first SF/F con at which I got to be on on some panels.

I had such a good time last year, how could I possibly stay away? Here are the details for this year’s 4th Street:

What: Fourth Street Fantasy
When: June 21 – 23, 2013
Where: Minneapolis, MN
(at the Spring Hill Suites Marriott, 5901 Wayzata Blvd, St. Louis Park, MN)
Program: (link)
Web Site: www.4thstreetfantasy.com

This year’s 4th Street looks to be as awesome as last year’s (if not more so). This year’s program is full of thought-provoking topics ranging from fantasy of discovery, to syncretism, to the heroine’s journey, and more. You can check out the whole program here. This year, I’ll be on one panel and moderating another.

Here are the salient details from the official program line-up:

Saturday, 9:30am – 10:30am
Intertextuality and Originality
No book exists independent of the literary conversation, no matter how much its author may want it to. Elizabethan faeries are inevitably going to be compared to each other, just like dark lords, destined heroes, and vampire- werewolf-mortal love triangles will. Given that very little authors can do will seem novel to experienced readers, how should they approach topics that many readers have been conditioned to read in a certain light? How can works that aim to deconstruct clichés avoid being read as “just X from Y’s perspective”?
  • Lynne Thomas
    (Moderating)
  • Chris Gerwel
    (that’s me!)
  • Tappan King
  • Catherine Lundoff
  • Abra Staffin-Wiebe

Saturday, 3:30pm – 4:30pm
Narrative Conventions
…and how their pressures shape narrative into certain forms. Are we narrowing the stories we can tell by leaning on familiar story forms and Aristotelian notions of rising action, drama, conflict, and the like? To what extent are western narrative conventions culturally specific, and how much of our media (and media- influenced fiction) is being made to fit time-blocks and act structures in ways that aren’t necessarily healthy to export into other forms?
  • Chris Gerwel
    (Moderating)
  • Alec Austin
  • Emma Bull
  • Kit Gordon

If you’ll be anywhere in the vicinity and if you’re looking for some excellent and thought-provoking discussions, I hope you’ll join us! And if you do come, I hope you’ll say hello!

CROSSROADS: Magic Realism and Negotiating the Unreal


Amazing Stories Logo Welcome to Thursday, folks. Somehow, no matter what I do, this day just keeps coming around. Weird, huh? Well, Thursday’s mean that it’s time for another one of our weekly Crossroads posts over at Amazing Stories, and this week we get deeper into speculative fiction’s often-stormy relationship with mainstream literary fiction.

This week’s essay explores some of the structural and thematic differences between (most) magic realist works, and (most) works of fantasy. While the fantastical devices and conceits may often be similar, their purpose and the way they are used structurally tend to be very different. I hope you stop by to take a look and join the conversation!

Crossroads: Negotiating the Unreal in Magic Realism and Fantasy

Viable Paradise 2013: Applications Due in Just Over a Month


Applications Due: June 15, 2013
Workshop Runs: October 13 – October 18th, 2013

A couple of years ago, I attended Viable Paradise, a week-long workshop for science fiction and fantasy writers. Applications for this year’s VP class are due on June 15th, which is a scant five weeks away. If you’re on the fence about applying this year, allow me to present some arguments for why you should.

Intensity of Focus

VP is a residential workshop, which means you spend the whole week with your fellow students and instructors in beautiful Martha’s Vineyard. And while the environment may be picturesque, don’t kid yourself: you’re not going to spend the week taking in the sights. Instead, the week is an intensely focused period of genre exploration. You’ll be talking genre, writing craft, and philosophy of art from morning ’til late into the night.

The experience isn’t nearly as intimidating as that might sound. First, everyone there – the instructors, the staff, and the other students – all love the genre just as much as you do. The instructors are all working professionals in the field, and have years of experience on both sides of the editorial divide. The volunteer staff (who are there for logistical/emotional support and to make sure everyone eats well) are all VP alums, so they’ve gone through the same intense experience (disclaimer: I was one of the volunteer staff last year, and I will be again this year). And your fellow students? They are all there for the same reason you are: because they love the genre, and they want to get better at the craft of writing.

The intensity of the VP experience is a by-product of everyone’s passion for the craft. And that shared passion is one of the most important features of VP. Where else could you talk story structure and world-building techniques into the wee hours of the morning for an entire week?

Differences of Approach

Each of Viable Paradise’s eight instructors have their own methods, their own perspectives, and their own beliefs about what it takes to produce the highest quality fiction. VP is unique in that all eight instructors are there and teaching in parallel, which means that students get to see the different perspectives juxtaposed alongside one another.

For me, this really drove home the lesson that there are many equally-valid ways to achieve a desired effect. By getting to see different approaches at the same time, I was able to synthesize new techniques and writing processes that work for me, for the way my mind works, and for the way my writing process works. If I were only exposed to one or two instructors at a time, I think I would have had a harder time developing this synthesis.

Novels and Short Stories

Over the years, VP has gotten the reputation of being a “novel-focused” workshop, and for me, this was a feature – not a bug. The opportunity to get the start of my novel critiqued, to have my synopsis examined, and to discuss the practical business of the modern novel market with folks who know it far better than I do was incredibly valuable.

However, despite its reputation for focusing on novel-length works, plenty of students apply with short stories. The instructors all work in both novel and short story lengths, and have done so for years. They have the experience in both forms to understand each form’s constraints and strengths. This helps to bring a very holistic perspective to the craft, and their understanding of the novel filters into the short story discussions, while the short story insights bleed into the novel-length discussions.

The result is an experience that – for me, at any rate – improved my work in both the short and novel length works.

Do You Want to Take Your Writing to the Next Level?

The best way to decide if VP is right for you is to ask yourself: do you want to take your writing to the next level? In my class, we had absolute newbies (me among them), agented authors, SFWA-member authors, and a number in between these various phases of a writing career. Regardless of where we were when we arrived, we left the island able to apply new skills and new perspectives to our writing, which in turn helped us to raise the level of our work.

Since we graduated in 2011, many of my classmates have gone on to publish short stories in various professional markets, to close multi-book deals, to self-publish their books, or (in my case) have their non-fiction selected for a best-of collection.

It didn’t matter where we started from or what our individual goals were, we leveled-up thanks to our experiences at VP.

More Information

If you’re looking for more information about VP, I strongly recommend the Viable Paradise web site.

And if you want a more detailed discussion of my experience at VP, and the costs associated with it, here are my Reflections on the Workshop Experience: Viable Paradise.

And since I’m planning on working as staff again this year, I hope to see you there in the fall!

Running a Little Late This Week


Hi Folks – My apologies, even though we’re only two days in, this has already become One of Those Weeks. As a result, I think I’m going to have skip this week’s post with a return to my regular Tuesday schedule next week. Sorry about this, but even this brief missive is up later than I would like, and everything else is just piling up behind it. With any luck, I’ll have some more interesting thoughts for you on Tuesday.

Until then, here’s a very thought-provoking essay I came across the other day: Foz Meadows on A Rule of Thumb for Escapism.

Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays & Commentary Now Available



So here’s a bit of really cool news: today marks the pub date for Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary, edited by Justin Landon of Staffer’s Book Review and Jared Shurin of Pornokitsch.

This is awesome because it marks the first (to the best of my knowledge) curated collection of online critical discussion about science fiction, fantasy, and horror. As a work of critical scholarship, and as a snapshot of influential voices in the field, it is a significant work featuring over fifty essays by writers from multiple perspectives and backgrounds. The authors included (I’m one of them, so perhaps I’m biased) are an impressive roster of genre creators, analysts, and reviewers:

  • Abigail Nussbaum
  • Adam Roberts
  • Aidan Moher
  • Elizabeth Bear
  • Paul Kincaid
  • Rose Lemberg
  • Ana Grilo and Thea James
  • Kameron Hurley
  • Kate Elliott
  • N.K. Jemisin
  • Chris Garcia
  • Foz Meadows
  • Christopher Priest
  • …and many more!

My own essay on “The Circus as a Fantastic Device” is included as well, in case you haven’t seen that one yet. So far I’m only about a third of the way through my contributor’s copy, and I am duly impressed by the quality of the commentary and analysis this collection contains.

If you want a print copy, they are available from Amazon for $11.99 (£8.99 in the UK) here: Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary

If you want a digital copy, unfortunately Amazon seems to have messed up the eBook files so you’ll have to wait until May 2nd…but that’s only a short week away! (NOTE: It is worth mentioning that buying a copy helps a good cause: proceeds from sales of this collection will go to support Room to Read, an organization dedicated to improving global child literacy and gender equality in education.)

Incidentally, on May 2nd, there will also be a Reddit AMA featuring the editors of SpecFic 2012, along with some of the contributors. I don’t yet have all of the details of that AMA, but as soon as I do, I’ll let you know. Hope to see you there!

‘Tis the Season: What Good are the Hugos?


Saturday’s announcement of the 2013 Hugo Award nominees has done what it always does: On the one hand, nominees and their friends were (justifiably) pleased, happy, and excited to be so honored. On the other hand, certain corners of the community were dejected, dissatisfied, and frustrated by the nominated works individually and the system which nominated them collectively. This is a cycle that we repeat every year and for just about every major award the field confers. It is not a debate limited to the Hugo Awards, nor to the Nebulas, nor to the BSFAs, nor to the Clarke Award. It is part of a perpetual cycle of community introspection and cultural validation.

On the Award Season Cycle

As I wrote last year, the disagreements produced by such awards are healthy for the field and for the community. Though the discussions seem repetitive, by constantly worrying at the bias demonstrated in nominees, by re-examining the processes through which works get nominated, and by criticizing the factions and reasoning for/against a particular title, we are all inching our community forward (or at least two steps forward and one step back).

One can wonder, for example, whether the increased frequency of female nominees on the Hugo slate is a result of previous year’s complaints, or whether it is merely a reflection of changing values/mores amongst Hugo voters. It’s a Zen koan-like question, and one which I think is ultimately unanswerable. Whatever the “truth”, I will cheer the Hugos’ increased inclusiveness regardless, while simultaneously lamenting that that they are not yet inclusive enough. I am confident that in time we will see still more diverse lineups, and maybe even (gasp) nominees who don’t come from a Judeo-Christian/English-oriented background. Every chance I get, I will wish for that and I will speak out for that. But I recognize that such change will take both time, and an exploration of how the Hugo procedures either inhibit or promote such inclusiveness.

The Unanswered Questions in this Year’s Discussion

This year’s paroxysms of disgruntlement, particularly the essays written by Justin Landon at Staffer’s Book Review and Aidan Moher at A Dribble of Ink, make me wonder about a more fundamental, heretofore unstated question: what good are the Hugo Awards? What is their purpose? What role(s) do they serve?

Every person who voices an opinion on the nominees, or the winners, or the awards process itself, has some presumptive answers to these questions. Are my answers the same as Justin’s? Are his the same as Aidan’s? Are ours the same as Kevin Standlee’s? Are Kevin’s the same as Hugo Voter X? Without exploring our unstated assumptions, it will be difficult to understand and contextualize either the complaints about the Hugo Awards, or the defenses of the same. Accusations of demagoguery and privilege are already flying in the comments to Justin’s post, and I suspect they stem from a disconnect in a basic question: what purpose do the Hugo Awards serve?

It is possible for each of us to answer this discussion differently, and yet to find common ground when discussing the Awards. Different individual values underlie any democratic system. Ask two people to prioritize the functions of government. You’ll get widely divergent lists, even among those who profess the same political beliefs. Yet by making those priorities and those values explicit, we can gain a better understanding of the real source of dissatisfaction. And it is that kind of understanding which I think is necessary if the Hugo Awards are ever to improve in any way.

Here are the unstated questions that I think deserve an exploration:

  1. What is the purpose of the Hugo Awards?
  2. Who is the primary audience for the Hugo Awards?
  3. Who are the Hugo Awards valuable to, and why?

Having asked these questions, I’ll take a stab at answering them, too. These are my own answers, and odds are they differ from those of many people. I’d love to hear what you think, though: it’ll help us find common ground on how to improve the Hugos.

What is the purpose of the Hugo Awards?

I believe that the purpose of the Hugo Awards is to celebrate “worthy” works in the field of science fiction and fantasy. The process by which the Hugo Awards get selected is a system designed to assess a given title’s relative “worth” within the field. What constitutes that worth is idiosyncratic and highly subjective.

For example, I might nominate the works which I consider to be the most challenging, the most forward-looking, the most interesting in any given year. That’s because in my personal system of judging “worth,” those are criteria which rank high. Whether I enjoyed a given work or not may be of secondary concern (for example, I consider Lavie Tidhar’s 2011 Osama a “worthy” title, even though I didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have liked to). Yet someone else might nominate the books that they enjoyed the most, irrespective of their progressive values, their innovation, or their challenging themes and techniques. That’s the nature of democracy.

As a result, the Hugo Awards are there to offer us a snapshot as to the creative/aesthetic values of fandom at a particular moment in time. The voting system is meant to take disparate and divergent priorities, and to aggregate a selection of the “worthy” titles. Some years (historically, rather often), the result may be backward-facing, reactionary, and nostalgic. Other years (even more often, I think), the result may be comfortable, safe, and conservative (culturally – not necessarily politically). And still in other years, the result may be innovative, challenging, and refreshing.

What is more, this process will vary across categories of work. While – for example – the Best Novel category may be deemed “safe” one year, another category (Fan Writer, say) may push the envelope in interesting ways. It is a messy, unstable process – like all democracies.

Yet in each case, the underlying purpose of the Hugo Awards remains the same: to select a “worthy” set of titles. I use that word advisedly, and you’ll note that I don’t say select the “best” works in the field. I know that the awards themselves label themselves “Best Novel” and so on. But the Hugo Awards are no more representations of the “best” in the field than the Oscars are a selection of the “best” films produced in a given year. The one adjective that I think can comfortably be applied is to say that they are all “worthy” titles.

And the purpose of the Hugo Award (honestly, even of a Hugo nomination) is to designate a title as worthy.

Who is the primary audience for the Hugo Awards?

This question, I think, is much more difficult for me to answer than the last. One can make an argument that the Hugo is addressed to many audiences: to cognoscenti, to authors, to booksellers, to librarians, to non-readers of the field, etc. And while the Hugo does reach and communicate to each of these audiences, I think its primary audience is rather insular. I think the Hugos speak most loudly to the authors whose works are being celebrated.

This is – I suspect – a fairly controversial viewpoint. I would like an award addressed to broaden the fold, but the Hugos aren’t it. They have never been designed to reach or communicate beyond the borders of a particular subculture (fandom). Their procedures have always been built to select for more creatively conservative works that operate solidly within the genre’s historical conventions. Consider the arguments for a new sub-genre put forth by Gareth L. Powell in The Irish Times.

The Hugo Awards’ primary audience is the authors and editors who produce the works that win them. In this, they are like the Nebula Awards and the Oscars. They are a selection of worthy works, and the communication of their worth to the authors who created them. There is nothing wrong with this. This is not a complaint. It is merely an observation of the practical audience to whom the Hugo Awards seem to matter most.

Outside of the science fiction and fantasy community, the Hugo Awards are sadly irrelevant. Even in neighboring genres (like YA), people fail to differentiate between the Hugo Awards, the Clarke Award, and the Nebula Awards. That doesn’t happen with the Booker Prize. That doesn’t happen with the Newbery. It doesn’t happen with the National Book Award.

It is comfortable for us to lament this as the continuing ghettoization of our genre, but I think that’s overly simplistic. The Hugo Awards are not addressed to new readers of the genre. Nor are they (like the Newbery) targeting actors in the supply chain, such as librarians or booksellers. They are relevant solely to the authors, and to a lesser extent to the vocal minority of fans who wish to support them.

One can make the argument that the Hugo Awards should be targeting new readers, to widen the fold, so to speak. But that would mean changing their primary audience, which would have dramatic consequences for longstanding procedures.

Who are the Hugo Awards valuable to, and why?

A corollary to the question of audience is the question of addressed value. If the primary audience for the Hugo Awards are the creators themselves, who are they most valuable to? At first blush, it would be easy to say that they are valuable to those authors because it gives them a boost in sales.

But anecdotally, I have heard that Hugo awards offer a minimal sales bump. Is this true? When YA/MG titles win the National Book Award for Young Readers, or the Newbery Medal (or even get nominated), they typically see a significant sales bump. It is that sales bump which motivates their imprints to slap medal seal stickers on their covers or to accelerate their paperback reissue: the added expense is justified by the virtuous cycle of the even bigger sales bump thereafter. Even decades after their win, books like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time still wear their medals proudly.

I haven’t seen science fiction and fantasy imprints do this with the Hugo, which supports the anecdotes that Hugo Awards don’t offer a significant sales bump. What’s the truth of this? I suspect that the Hugo Awards fail to yield significant sales dividends (which further supports my belief that their primary audience is not the broader public), but I’d love to see hard data if anyone’s got it.

The lack of a sales bump would suggest that the Hugo Awards have little value in the genre publishing supply chain. If they were valuable to booksellers, you’d see more active promotion of the Hugo Awards at the retailer level. And we just don’t see that, outside of a limited number of specialist booksellers. If the Hugo Awards were valuable to librarians, you’d see libraries touting them in the local library. I’ve been to four libraries in the last three weeks, and not one of them had a “Hugo Award Winners” section (they had award-winning sections for other genres, though). Because they are not valuable to booksellers or librarians, they are likely of marginal value to publishers: Nice to have, but only important inasmuch as they secure a “floor” for a title among a core group of readers (the in-group of fandom).

So who then, are the Hugos truly valuable to? I believe they are most valuable to the authors themselves, because they provide some measure of creative validation and spark creative discussion. I also believe they are valuable to the cognoscenti in fandom because it likewise celebrates a genre tradition and gives us an outlet for expressing our tastes and values. Both are culturally important: the former feeds into and shapes future creative endeavors, while the latter helps cement bonds within the subculture.

Note, that these values are irrespective of whether one agrees with or disagrees with a given nominee/award winner. Consciously or not, our attitudes towards recent winners (in essence, the “headliners” of our narrow field) influence or at least shape the fiction we ourselves create. We may emulate their aesthetics or reject them, but they still influence us. Similarly, for every defensive SMOF who bristles at the suggestion that the Hugos are irrelevant or “broken”, their bonds with other SMOFs of similar outlook are strengthened by their shared defensiveness. The same goes for the “complainers” who attack the Hugos and gripe about the system. The genre contains multitudes, and even in their controversy, the Hugo Awards help to tighten the bonds between and among members of the genre community.

Where do we go from here?

So if that’s what/who the Hugo Awards are for, where do we go from here? I think that given the above, the Hugo Awards are doing their job just fine. I would like to see more works nominated from the younger, newer, and particularly vibrant online genre community. I would like to see more works from diverse backgrounds, particularly from outside of the English-speaking world. I would like to see more works by women.

But the current Hugo nominating systems will get us there, eventually. I wish we’d get there faster, but I think that history is on my side.

Do I think that speculative fiction needs a prominent award that will reach across the genre aisle and communicate to the broader literary community outside of our insular little world? Yes. I would love for there to be an award like that. The Hugo Awards simply ain’t it, and if we ask them to be then we really should re-examine the entire system that produces them.

Sick


I’m afraid I’ve come down with a rather miserable cold, and I wasn’t feeling quite up to writing something today. With any luck, I’ll have something (and feel better) in a couple of days.

Running a Little Late


*sigh*

I’m afraid I’m running a little late this week. I’ll hopefully have a post up tomorrow (Wednesday).

When to Jump? The Art of Asking and the Economics of Writing


If you’re a writer, artist, or otherwise creative sort, I strongly recommend Amanda Palmer’s recent TED Talk:

I first watched it when it was originally released, and since then I’ve re-watched it a time or two. And like Chuck Wendig (here), Tobias Buckell (here), and Harry Connolly (here) I have somewhat mixed feelings. On the one hand, I applaud Palmer’s philosophy of art and artistry. On the other hand, I question its practicality as applied to written art (e.g. books, short stories, poetry, sequential art, etc.).

The Traditional Economics of Art

First, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool believer in the power of commerce. I do not believe – and have never thought – that the value of art is opposed (or even in tension with) the value of commercial exchange.

The price I pay to read a book is determined by the economics of the supply chain and distribution system used to produce the book and get it into my hands. Physical manufacturing (printing, warehousing, shipping, etc.) are just one component with that, and the real supply chain for books actually starts with the artist – namely the author. The author, the agent, the publisher, the printer, the distributor, the retailer all play a role in this supply chain and they are all doing so out of enlightened self-interest: to make a buck.

This is not to say that all (or even any) of these actors are merely cynical number-crunchers out to skin either the consumer or the artist. That kind of oppositional thinking is something I’ve come across pretty often in the arts, and it is the result of naive ignorance. If the actors involved in producing and distributing a work of art cannot feed themselves, they won’t produce any more art. If the investors (authors included) whose capital finances the production and distribution of art on-spec (i.e. without a guaranteed profit) are prevented from making a profit (and so feeding themselves), they will take their capital elsewhere…again, leading to less art. Such is life in the real world (in practice, a similar economic principle has also operated within every historical attempt at a communist or socialist economic system).

With these supply chains and distribution systems, it is impossible for the actors to peg the price of a given book to its “artistic value”. Asking “What is Othello worth?” is a Zen koan more troubling than the sound of one hand clapping. We – as consumers – cannot assign our own (highly subjective) value to a work of art without having first experienced it. Unless we have read a book, we lack sufficient information to value it. Which is why when people read books that they do not enjoy, a frequent lament is “Not worth the cover price.” If we have read an author’s previous work, we may be able to predict a value (e.g. “I loved So-and-So’s last twelve books, so I expect to love the new one coming out tomorrow.”) but such an evaluation is still only an approximate prediction.

But the traditional distribution systems that bring us that book aren’t telepathic (yet, and let’s not give Mr. Bezos any ideas). They don’t know how we feel about a book, nor do they know how we expect to feel about a book. So they can only determine price out of a best-guess approximation, using their costs as a baseline. This is a fundamental philosophical fact: the price we pay for a book at retail has little relationship to its artistic value.

The Economic Consequences of the Patronage System

A patronage system – such as the patronage system that Amanda Palmer relies on – tries to bridge the gap between artistic value and price. To vastly generalize, it relies on technology to flatten the distribution system:

  • It completely obviates the need for retailers to buy/warehouse/sell the product, and;
  • It largely obviates the need for publishers to select/edit/print/warehouse/ship the product.

This process is – at best – approximate. Works of art (whether music or books) still need to be written, recorded, edited, distributed, etc. and the people who work on different parts of this process need to be paid. Yet by disconnecting the “price” a consumer pays from the costs of production and distribution Palmer and those who follow her model can achieve a closer alignment between what the consumer pays and that consumer’s assessment (or prediction) of a work’s artistic value.

When we pay “what we want to” (which is different from “what we can”) all we’re really doing is translating our subjective assessment or expectation of a song/book’s value into dollars and cents.

Such a patronage model is unlikely to work (due to the costs of scale) with a traditional distribution model. No retailer and no publisher will ever buy and stock books on what they consider a wing and a prayer. The reason for that is because they would be unable to determine a breakeven point. In publishing terms, no publisher would be able to predict when a book will earn out, which in turn means they would not have the ability to assess their degree of risk.

Digital distribution – whether of music or writing – lowers the aggregate cost throughout the distribution chain. It does so to a lesser degree than the digital-only/self-publishing boosters out there would want us believe, but it does objectively lower the amount of capital at risk, which in turn increases the likelihood that some publisher might take a chance on the patronage model. However – and this is where the practical part comes into play – just because the amount of capital at risk is lower doesn’t necessarily make the probability of profit any higher.

Think of it this way (this is vastly over-simplified, yet the principle holds): a publisher invests $100 to acquire, edit, design, print, and warehouse a book. Some part of this money goes to the author (an advance), some to the editors/designers/artists, some to the printer, etc. This is the amount of capital at risk in the distribution chain. Yet with a price point set at $5.00, the publisher knows that they have to sell 20 copies to break even. Based on their experience, they know that they can expect to sell 15 copies (75% of their breakeven point) at launch. So while their overall capital at risk is $100, they know that they have a near-certainty of already covering 75% of that cost. Meaning their effective risk has dropped to $25. And based on their experience, they are able to judge the likelihood of those remaining 5 copies selling over a particular time period.

The traditional economic model allows every actor in the system to control the overall amount of capital they are putting at risk, while taking into account their expected effective risk. On the one hand, the publisher has certain (known) costs, and on the other it has expected (probable, though uncertain) revenues. Decisions can be made rationally based on facts (costs) and probabilities (expected sales).

In the patronage model, the cost side of the equation is still known. The aggregate cost may be lower due to a reliance on digital distribution, but the costs remain calculable. Yet it is far, far harder to predict the revenue side because neither the artist nor the publisher are in the consumer’s head.

And this is where my practical concerns with Amanda Palmer’s Art of Asking arise.

Pretty Speeches Oversimplify

Yes, Amanda Palmer’s $1.2 million Kickstarter campaign is impressive. Yet it did not happen overnight. It was a result of the relationships she had built with her audience throughout her impressive career. By advising creators to trust their audience, Palmer is glossing over the years of hard work she invested in cultivating an audience which both shares her ethos and values her work highly.

Throughout her career, Palmer has built a highly participative fandom. This was, as she herself admits, a conscious choice borne of her artistic philosophy. I have no problem with this, and I applaud her philosophy and the conviction with which she applies it. However, her experience cultivating this relationship with her audience serves a fundamental economic purpose: it makes it easier for her to assess the probability of her “revenue” in a patronage model.

I’m sure Palmer didn’t sit down with an Excel spreadsheet and a little green visor and model out supply/demand/value curves based on historical receipts. First, few artists are that into Excel. Second, she didn’t have to. She had a “reasonable” expectation that her fan base would contribute to her artistic endeavors because they had done so in the past when asked to.

This last point is, I think, vital. The consumer who picks up a book at B&N is not necessarily the same consumer who will go to readings, nor one who will engage on social media, nor one who will pre-order titles on Amazon, nor one who will contribute to a crowd-funding campaign. Most readers (sadly) aren’t that engaged with either the books they read or the artists who produce them. Yet Amanda Palmer had – on the basis of her experience asking fans for support large and small in the past – a reasonable way of “guessing” at the likelihood that her fans would continue to support her.

I suspect Amanda Palmer doesn’t think of it in such terms. Her experiences – starting with her days as a street performer – have all contributed to this worldview. Her experience with the “art of asking” – and the probability of the audience responding – has shaped her life (in particular her lifestyle and costs of living) throughout its course.

As others have pointed out, writers with mortgages, kids, medical bills, etc. may find it far harder to take such chances…precisely because these obligations increase our (known) costs. A young kid with few bills, no family, and no other financial obligations can afford to take greater risks. In other words, our costs are known and (by our reasoning) high. Yet if we have not carefully cultivated an appropriate relationship with our audience, we have a limited ability to accurately predict the revenue side. In other words, our effective risk approaches our capital at risk, which is a position I would hate to have to justify to my bank.

What Does All of this Mean for Working and Aspiring Writers?

As I intimated above, I personally think it depends on your particular situation. If I were fifteen years younger, I would probably adopt a different strategy than I would today. However, I think even then that difference would be one of focus rather than one of principle.

I think that in today’s artistic world, it is in an artist’s best interest to cultivate a variety of distribution models. Traditional publishing with the Big Six, traditional publishing in small press, self-publishing, crowd-funding, patronage, etc. have all proven to be viable models. As artists, we can make each of them work for us. But doing so successfully means using somewhat different skills to varying degrees. If I want to be successful as a writer (regardless of what point I’m at in this career), I think it makes strategic sense to have experience in all of these distribution models.

I’m going to be better at some models than others, based on my own skills, based on my own personality, etc. But being conversant with these different approaches increases the likelihood that as the market evolves (and the balance among models shifts) I will be able to feed myself (and thus produce more art).

This principle isn’t rocket science. I kind of think of it as “writing 101″, and it has been articulated by writers far more experienced than me many times over. And yet from this principle, a simple conclusion follows:

If we want to be conversant with varying models of artistic distribution, and the patronage / crowd-funding model advocated by Amanda Palmer is one such model, then logically it makes sense to experiment with that model (Q.E.D.). So what does this mean practically?

Most writers end up with – at some point in their careers – a work that will be a hard-sell in the traditional distribution model. Some books are just like that, regardless of their artistic merit. For example, in my case, I have a script for a 128-page alternate history/western/fantasy graphic novel that I wrote about a year ago. There are good reasons why this script won’t sell any time soon:

  • It’s just a script, and I am probably the world’s absolute worst artist.
  • There is no artist currently attached to the script.
  • It works in its entirety: i.e. it is a novel in sequential art form, and does not lend itself to single-issue distribution.
  • I am an unknown – just another blogger out there on the internet with no Bookscan numbers to provide a floor.

All the factors above serve to increase both a publisher’s aggregate risk, and to diminish that publisher’s ability to predict revenue. In time, when more of my fiction sees the light of day and I have Bookscan numbers to back me up? Maybe it’ll be a different. But for the moment, the book is unlikely to sell regardless of its quality.

I knew all of this when I started writing the book, so that’s neither a surprise nor a disappointment. But it does leave me with (I think) a good product that is objectively unlikely to sell through traditional models. And that is the kind of project for which it may be worth considering either a crowd-funded/patronage model, a self-publishing model, or (most likely) a hybrid of the two.

Core Lesson from Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk

I think that the core conclusion that I draw from Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk isn’t the obvious one. Her claim that the audience will catch us if we jump is an over-simplification of a very complex process that took her years to cultivate. But she still has a point: if we do not cultivate such a relationship with our audience, and if we do not learn how to do so, we are passing up an interesting economic model that can support our art.

We can only learn so much by looking at those who were successful. Amanda Palmer’s experiences in music publishing and performance do not translate directly to the world of books. John Scalzi’s success serializing his early novels several years ago does not necessarily translate directly to the industry today. The best way for us to develop these skills (and they are skills, in the same way that speaking on a panel is a skill) is to dive in and figure it out.

It is not a question of whether to jump or not. Common sense suggests that we should all practice our high-dive, if for no other reason than career security. Yet even if we are committed to jumping into crowd-funding and the patronage model, the practical question is which cliff to jump from. Not all of us might be prepared for the high-dive acrobatics that Amanda Palmer performs. I know I’m not. And the only way to reach such spectacular heights is to train (i.e. cultivate the audience and develop the skills to do so). That, I think, is the real trick: choosing the manageable cliff, and taking that first step off its edge.

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