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.
Over at The Staffer’s Book Review, Justin Landon and Jared Shurin (from Pornokitsch) have announced the lineup of contributors to Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays, and Commentary.
It looks like an awesome lineup, with essays from folks like Elizabeth Bear, Paul Kincaid, Christopher Priest, NK Jemisin, and plenty more. And to my shock and delight, I’m in there, too!
The anthology comes out a short month from now, on April 25th, 2013. And all profits from the book will be donated to Room to Read, an international charity dedicated to literacy and gender equality in education.
In case you haven’t noticed (and these things are easy to miss), today is Thursday! Not only does that mean the week is drawing to a close, but it also means that it is time for another Crossroads post at Amazing Stories.
Continuing with our western month, this week we take a look at the different approaches to world-building used in the western genre, and in science fiction, and fantasy. I hope you stop by and join the conversation!
I’m afraid I’m running a little late this week. I’ll hopefully have a post up tomorrow (Wednesday).
With Thursday upon us, that means it is time for another Crossroads post over at Amazing Stories. This week, I look at the archetypal western hero, and the ways in which that hero shows up in science fiction and fantasy. Specifically, I explore the traditional usage of the western cowboy/outlaw and the ways in which SF/F dilutes that archetype, and discuss how contemporary western-themed SF/F (e.g. Weird West, steampunk, alternate history, etc.) subverts the archetypal western hero in fundamental ways.
You can find the whole essay here: CROSSROADS: The Western Hero in Speculative Fiction
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.
So today is the first Thursday of March, which means it is time to kick off a new Crossroads series over at Amazing Stories.
This month, I’m going to be focusing on the relationship between Westerns and Speculative Fiction. There will be horses and spaceships, guns and swords and lasers, and plenty of riding into
sunsets solar flares. This week’s post outlines the aesthetic dimensions of the western which I think are most relevant for speculative fiction and begins to examine whether the western’s commercial trajectory may be a valuable cautionary tale for speculative fiction.
I hope you stop by! Today’s post is: Crossroads: Riding into Space – Westerns and Speculative Fiction
So last week, Gollancz (an excellent British publisher of science fiction and fantasy) got some discussion going by tweeting a provocative question:
Epic Fantasy is, by and large, crushingly conservative in its delivery, its politics and its morality. Discuss. And why? (Oh why?)
— Gollancz (@Gollancz) February 22, 2013
I missed the initial conversation on Twitter, but I have been following the fascinating responses from Liz Bourke at Tor.com, John H. Stevens at SFSignal, and Steven M. Long. So far, I’ve let Gollancz’s initial question, the essay responses, and the comments made on those responses all percolate in my brain. And out of that percolation, some thoughts come to mind:
Definitions Matter…to a Point
Much of the discussion has focused on defining terms. I suppose, considering the genre community’s love of semantics, that this shouldn’t be surprising. In this case, the discussion has centered almost exclusively on two key terms (“epic fantasy” and “conservative”) which are – admittedly – fuzzy, imprecise, and in may ways problematic. In order to contextualize my thoughts, I’m going to briefly wade into the semantic weeds and define how I will be using these terms, but that is incidental to my main focus. Much of the discussion has ignored the third – and most important – key term in Gollancz’s initial tweet: “crushingly.”
Definitions of “epic fantasy” and “conservative”, while important for the sake of precision, are terms we all routinely employ in some fashion. There is a working understanding of such terms that enables us to communicate. My personal definition of “epic fantasy” or my concept of “conservative” may not match yours perfectly, but there is enough overlap that we can in most cases make ourselves understood.
When it comes to “epic fantasy”, I like Alec Austin’s concept of a tag cloud of sub-genre characteristics, simply because it allows us to think of particular works as falling somewhere on a spectrum of “epic-ness”. Different works won’t all share the same characteristics, but such a model enables us to contextualize particular works somewhere along this conceptual spectrum – and thus to adopt a working understanding we can all agree on.
“Conservative” is a little more fraught, with cultural, political, emotional, and historical connotations that vary across individuals and geographies. “Politically conservative” in the UK differs significantly from “politically conservative” in the US, “morally conservative” varies across religious and secular belief and value systems, and all of these different meanings of “conservative” further fragment into different implied meanings for “culturally conservative”. Loathe as I am to get bogged down in semantics, I’m going to use “conservative” in the following sense (courtesy of Dictionary.com):
1. disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.
I think the term “crushingly” is less well-understood, particularly in this critical context. What does it mean to be “crushingly” conservative (or “progressive”, or “epic”, or “green”, or any other adjective)? What is getting “crushed” in Gollancz’s question? Are we talking about limitations imposed on aesthetics at the moment of creation? The moment of editorial acquisition? The moment of consumer purchase? The moment of reader consumption? Do we mean that structural characteristics are imposed upon creative works wishing to operate within or comment upon a sub-genre’s conventions? Do we mean that the characteristics of a particular sub-genre preclude the exploration of certain themes?
The important part of Gollancz’s question has little to do with how we define either “epic fantasy” or “conservative”. Any attempt to answer hinges upon the meaning of “crushingly”, and the cultural significance of that answer is a direct consequence of the unstated object implicit in the original question.
What Gets Crushed?
What is implicitly being crushed in Gollancz’s question? Obviously at a certain level of abstraction they mean epic fantasy literature. But that is such a broad over-generalization that it offers us little insight. It is far more interesting to narrow our focus and examine which aspects of epic fantasy literature may be getting the squeeze.
Here are the aspects I’m curious about:
- Aesthetics. Does our current conception of epic fantasy preclude certain imagery, metaphors, sentence construction, etc.?
- Structure. How do trends in epic fantasy constrain the narrative structures viable within the sub-genre?
- Themes. Are there thematic areas which epic fantasy cannot explore? Moral, ethical, political, sociological models it cannot dramatize?
By definition, working within a genre imposes certain constraints on a creative work. However broad a given genre may be (and speculative fiction is, on the whole, broader than most), it has conventions. In fact, some might argue that genres are defined by their conventions, which as Samuel Delany pointed out, shape the way readers consume and interpret the written work. These conventions impose constraints precisely along those three foundational lines: aesthetics, structure, and themes. That is an inescapable truth of genre, and represents a key conserving force.
But when does the conserving force of such conventions (i.e. the constraints of convention) grow so constricting as to be deemed “crushing?” And here it gets interesting.
Who Does the Crushing?
The creative process features many actors at many stages: There is the author, who conceives of a story and sits down to write it. There is an agent who chooses to represent the book based on their confidence in its sales potential. There is an editor/publisher who acquires the story based on their confidence in its sales potential. There is a designer and production editor who shape the physical characteristics of the book so as to maximize (they hope) its sales potential. There is a bookseller who orders copies of the book based on their expectations of its sales. There are consumers who buy a book based on their expectations of what they’ll find within its covers. There are consumers who enjoy a book based on what they find within its covers, and some of whom will then go and conceive of a new story influenced (at least to some extent) by everything they have read before.
Each actor and each stage feeds into and affects every other stage of this cycle. Who applies the constraints imposed by genre? We all do.
The author, whose conception of a story has been shaped by their life experiences and media/genre consumption, chooses to impose or subvert the conventions of a genre while writing it.
The agent and acquiring editor (and the marketing and sales departments) are more or less welcoming to different books depending on the degree and fashion in which they apply genre convention. For them, it is about striking a balance between challenging convention enough to be innovative and fresh, while working within convention enough to give the rest of the sales cycle confidence in the work. And perhaps most importantly, that balance can be tipped in either direction by the quality of the execution. As an editor friend once told me: “Nabokov can break every convention and get away with it. But you’re not Nabokov.”
The designers (and the marketing and sales departments, again) shape the packaging of the physical (or digital) product to communicate the book’s balance to the booksellers and readers. Consider the original US covers for Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. Stylistically, they suggest that the books’ content will work solidly within the conventions of mid-list sword and sorcery…and thus fail to communicate anything about the novels’ tone, structural innovations, or subversion of epic fantasy conventions. It was, of course, a judgment call, yet one which I think the series’ original UK publishers did better with (and it is significant that subsequent US editions received new covers closer in aesthetics to their UK counterparts).
|US Cover||UK Cover|
The bookseller learns about the book through the catalog copy, cover art, and perhaps even a conversation with the publisher’s reps. This material tells the bookseller about what kind of creative balance a given work strikes, which in turn helps them to determine how many copies to buy, and how to shelve those copies.
All of these decisions, coupled with reviews and third-party commentary about the book, shape the reader’s expectations and frame the reader’s approach to the book’s content. Ultimately, they determine if the reader will buy the book, and subsequently when coupled with the content itself, affect the reader’s enjoyment.
At each stage there is pressure applied to the balance in one or the other direction. Challenge the genre, but not enough to tank sales. Work within the genre, but not so slavishly as to be trite. Stand out, but not too tall. Unless the book’s quality is such that any putative and theoretical yearning for creative balance becomes meaningless. Every actor in this process “crushes” the creative work to one degree or another.
The Real Question
Given this framework, we can now turn to Gollancz’s question: Is epic fantasy crushingly conservative?
I don’t know.
No two people desire aesthetic, structural, and thematic innovation to the same degree or in the same direction. It is such idiosyncrasy which makes us human, and which leads to differing opinions. This push for innovation – in any facet of a creative work, and executed in whatever fashion – is constantly in tension with the prevailing cultural norms within broader society, and within the conventions of a particular genre.
Looking at epic fantasy, I see laudable attempts to push the boundaries of the genre. I recommend the work of (among others) N.K. Jemisin, Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, K.J. Parker, Steven Erikson, Kate Elliott, Robin Hobb, etc. I can point to authors and books that challenge, subvert, or extend the genre. I value such innovation very highly. Do I wish to see more such aesthetic, structural, and thematic innovation? Hell yes.
But do I think the prevailing cultural winds prevent such innovation from seeing the light of day? Do I think that such innovations are “crushed” beneath the oppressive heels of prevailing commercial trends and artistic tastes? I do not. I think that any innovation within any genre needs to be balanced against the long-standing conventions of that genre, and that this balance can be swayed in either direction by the quality of that innovation’s execution.
I think quality and innovation can both rise to the top. Regardless how circuitous the route, I think good storytelling will eventually win out. It may mean writing and selling more commercially “conservative” books in the short term to establish a fan base (i.e. to assuage commercial concerns about an innovative book’s commercial viability). It may mean by-passing the traditional publishing model and self-publishing an innovative work yourself. But the world of genre literature has the mechanisms in place to bring ground-breaking work to the surface, and to further disseminate its influence throughout the culture and the field.
But your mileage may vary. I think that epic fantasy does have conservative tendencies, just as all genres do. With the shadow of Tolkien, and the weight of history, I think epic fantasy’s conservative tendencies are expressed in ways particular to the sub-genre. Other genres (YA, for example) express their own conservatism in very different ways. An exploration of the ways in which epic fantasy or other genres express their conservatism would be fascinating (and I might come back to it later), but it is not really germane to Gollancz’s original question. Conservatism is inherent within every genre. The real question is whether or not the field is crushed by it.
How to Stand Beneath the Heel
The important conclusion of all this, however, is that if we wish to challenge the conservatism of a genre (regardless of how it is expressed or defined), we need to do it on every front we can. The author sitting alone and writing a challenging book. The agent who believes in the book enough to pitch it. The editor who believes in it enough to acquire it. The designers and sales people and reviewers and booksellers and readers who are willing to give it a shot.
But this process always starts with the creative act: with that author, ensconced behind a desk and dreaming challenging dreams.
So there I was: all ready to sit down and write a post about the “crushing conservatism” of epic fantasy. But then, out of nowhere, an equally crushing headache laid me low.
As a result, I think this week’s post will be a little late. I might get to it in a couple of hours, but more likely I’ll write it early tomorrow morning. Sorry for the delay, but I really don’t think staring at a screen will help alleviate my current brain pain. Instead, my plan for the evening is to curl up with some tea and ibuprofen.
Therefore, good night!