So, in these days of moving, and dragging and pulling and kicking boxes, all the while worrying about derpfish (he’s still alive, but I can’t tell if he’s getting better or worse. If he goes, I’m not getting another fish again. I like pets I can sort of guess at and who live longer than 2 years) I’ve been thinking about the Hugo mess. And I realized it’s part of a bigger mess.
And the problem isn’t Larry or anyone defying the Hugo cabal. That would have come sooner or later. And the masterminds of the opposition aren’t fighting for the shiny plastic rocket, they’re fighting for their livelihood. And the writers caught in the middle are divided between those who have woken up and those who have. And I could have been on either side, but for a fortuitous circumstance.
Bear with me ladies and gentlemen, as I take you back to a distant time and place.
When I tried to break into writing, I bought all the propaganda. Who didn’t? As lovers of books, it is easy to convince ourselves that all the good stuff is getting published, and that by and large, the best stuff is getting recognized. Oh, sure the taste in what gets published is not often mine. (I enjoy very few non-Baen bestsellers and NO mainstream “literary” ones, all of which seem to be despicable people doing despicable things described in beautiful language. Though some of them are just hopeless people doing hopeless things described in beautiful language.)
However my degree is literature and languages (we can’t uncouple them in Portugal) and so I really some people appreciate that sort of book and a high culture that, by and large, has given up on life and civilization considers these books true to life and therefore good. Fine. I could live with that. After all the book machine still produced a ton of stuff I wanted to read. By and large more than I could afford. (Remember, this was 1985, I’d just come to the states and I had decades worth of books to catch onto.)
The first twinge of doubt came when I bought science fiction magazines to read, to scope out why I was getting so many rejections, (i.e. to see if I was even aiming in the right direction) and found myself flabbergasted. Of the majors, Analog was the one I could at least read every story (though some of them were mind bogglingly insane. What was with the re-built princess Diana as space ambassador again? WTF?)
Asimov’s (I got a subscription to the two majors) ranged from unreadable grey goo to one of two truly amazing stories a year or so.
The rest? I’ll just say one of those magazines is on my list to never even open again unless I’m completely and thoroughly SLOSHED.
It wasn’t that those stories, even the ones in Asimov’s were bad, precisely. It was that they weren’t stories that… that met my internal feeling of what stories were. (And keep in mind I studied the literature of seven countries.)
I shoved the doubts away by telling myself this was how little I knew of stories. I needed to read more of these and figure out the internal logic. Eventually I did, btw, but I never liked them.
The second doubt came around 94? (I don’t remember date exactly. Might have been 96. Kept it till almost 2000) when I had a subscription to the sf book club and got the main selection or the alternate, for the same purposes of studying the market. Unlike with short stories, I couldn’t convince myself it was just my sideways perspective. I discovered one good book out of this (I was already reading some of their selections and those I don’t remember. But without them I’d never have read Diamond Age.) But 90% of the stuff they sent me was … not even bad, just “What”” Or perhaps “did I get a subscription to the literary book club, by accident?”
This sent me on a quest to investigate how publishing worked. You see, I’d assumed it was lots of little publishing houses, each cranking out what made the owners/publishers happy and competing for the market. But not, apparently, since the mergers of the 80s.
I discovered it was in fact an oligopsony. There were only five (now four) big publishers. They all had offices in the same space, they all hired the same (mostly ivy league) college graduates, and there were no taste surveys, nothing. The only people they were publishing for, in other words, were themselves. And their opinion of each other was far more important than anyone else’s opinions or for that matter sales numbers.
Which explains what I went through later on, after the failure of my first — Magical Shakespeare — series which was literary fantasy. Every agent I talked to after dropping my agent told me in the same breath that a) Literary Fantasy didn’t sell and b) that this is what I should write, since I “could.” This baffled me, but it should have clued me in that prestige, for authors and agents is the coin you trade to get money — nothing so crude as sales to the public. And that the field was rotten from top to bottom.
It took a while for this to sink in. You see, I was arguing with the eight year old who was going to grow up and be a writer. She was still somewhere inside me, and as hard to talk to logically as any eight year old.
And besides I can write anything, though writing the Magical British Empire convinced me that there are things that aren’t advisable for me to write. It is also literary fantasy, of a sort, and I almost killed myself through sheer depression while forcing myself to write it. (In a writers’ edition, i.e. cleaned up, it will see light of day again soon.)
Then I ran away with the Baen circus, and I don’t actually have any objections to writing shifters and space operas, and besides baby needed new shoes (school books, actually) so I worked my tail off on Musketeer’s mysteries. Writing six books a year while homeschooling a middle schooler leaves you curiously uninterested in the state of the publishing industry.
What I have assembled a posteriori is not absolutely certain, so you guys can protest if I’m wrong.
You see, the oligopsony worked fine as long as there was another control mechanism, which we’ll call distribution and sales. The sales were mostly tiny stores, run by people who loved books. This meant that as rotten as the NY publishing establishment was, if it threw out (almost by accident) something worthy, the distributors ran with it and the retailers handsold it, and you had a surprise bestseller.
This didn’t please the establishment who decided they needed full control. Enter mega chains of bookstores that put small stores out of business; enter distributors who didn’t read the books; enter retail clerks who also didn’t read and pushed only what they were told to push.
Sometime by the late nineties, the publishing business had a perfect lock on distribution, the famous push model. I.e. “You’ll sell what we tell you to and LIKE it.”
Enter Amazon. Their hatred for it goes that far back. Suddenly people were finding and buying books not scheduled for bestsellerdom. And liking them. And buying more.
I think the push model started falling apart then. I remember seeing a few books that got all the push and disappeared without a sound.
But there was worse to come: indie.
All of a sudden the lie that whatever got published was the best became apparent.
It was around this time that a well-established traditional author told friends of mine “if this indie thing works I’m going to be very rude to many people.”
And that’s what the Hugos fight is all about.
I woke up to Indie, in my personal timeline, because I had a weird coup-de-writing.
While in the middle of an extremely tight schedule, I took art classes to avoid thinking in words for a little bit. And coming out of an art class an August five (?) years ago, I got an entire trilogy downloaded into my brain. A musketeer trilogy, in a parallel world where vampires are winning. I came home and typed in a jumble of scenes, mostly at Kate who said what I felt “this is good. This is gold.”
Now, I know good doesn’t mean anything in publishing. Agent, push, getting it in front of the right eyes at the right time have more to do with it.
But I thought…
Well, my agent shopped it around or at least told me so. I only realized recently that unlike her other submittals, she never sent me rejections. It’s alright. Maybe it was done all in electronic, but still…
She finally sold it to this tiny house, for 3k a book. And then I got the copyedit on that manuscript, and all hell broke lose. For one the next book stopped cold. This is the copyedit where the copyeditor spent a lot of time doing stuff like correcting the names of the musketeers (unnamed in the Dumas books or correcting my sentences in even more bizarre ways. I looked at those comments recently and while it’s not the worst edit I’ve ever got, brother it’s a doozy.)
Even though we were broke at the time, I tried to buy the rights back. And then I considered giving up writing. If my agent could only sell what was to me at the time my best work (Yeah, A Few Good Men is better, but it was not yet even a glimmer) then I gave up.
In the middle of this I contacted Kris Rusch who told me to come out to an “how to go indie” workshop.
Everything else, including letting my agent go came from there, and if my indie career isn’t more advanced that comes down to a health collapse.
But it also freed me to come out of the political closet.
And you have to understand the closet is deep because livelihoods ride on it.
I don’t know why anyone would bother claiming publishing doesn’t trend left. Of course it does. It’s run by NYC people, with NYC opinions. As NYC votes, so is it run. They don’t THINK they’re left, because in their world it’s just what everyone thinks. But thought NYC is a city-world, they’re missing the majority of people out here.
The result though was that in the old oligopsonic days, you had to play along and pretend, or be labeled far right wing (it should give anyone a clue that now they label me far right wing. Me. Oh, sure, not Marxist, but close enough to anarchy — true anarchy, not the leftist weirdness — to touch it, and they shove me into the neo-nazi spectrum, because, you know, those of us who want as little government as possible SURELY want to have goosestepping troops. WHAT?) and never work in that town again.
I’ve said before that years ago, being mentioned at Instapundit would have meant the end of my career.
It wasn’t a stupid fear. It was real. Even though writers can’t control who reads them and likes them, if you’re liked by the “far right” you must be using “dog whistles” — and thus the blacklisting starts.
So those people asking to be removed from the Hugo recommendations which were made by fan vote? Perfectly logical. Getting tainted by association is a thing in their circles.
The people proclaiming that we: Larry, Brad, myself, John C. Wright, I don’t know if they were stupid enough to include Kevin J. Anderson and Butcher in that, but definitely everyone else in the list, had “ruined their careers” are right. For their world and their definition of career. None of the big four will ever publish us again, except Baen.
They are stuck in the old push-model days in their head. They think that everyone down the chain will now boycott us. And they want to make d*mn sure it doesn’t splash on them.
Meanwhile we’re living in a different world. We’ve tried indie, and it worked. (Even though in my case it was just toe dipping. More to come once internet is fixed and bedrooms, kitchen and office unpacked. (It’s all we’re unpacking in this house.)
We’re living in a world where we can be rude to whomever we please, love our fans whoever they are, and have our own opinions. Because NYC publishing is NOT the boss of us.
And though I’ll write for Baen as long as they’ll have me, I’ve done enough to know that indie will pay more. (Never mind, Baen is family. You do what you do for family. And it’s worth it.)
Which means we live in a land without fear. And it’s hard to remember that the reactions to being put on a list BY THE WRONG PEOPLE is perfectly logical.
And it’s hard to remember that the publishers too are afraid, and that holding onto the Hugos is all they can think of to keep prestige which they can then use to dangle in front of new writers to attract them, since they can’t have money. (First book advances are now 3k.)
To them it’s a deadly serious game, which is why they can’t understand we’re doing this half in jest (the Sad Puppies name should have been a clue.) They can’t understand that to us it is “we can do it” and not “life or death.”
And this is why the two sides talk past each other. And why it’s perfectly logical for each side, but the logic of one doesn’t apply to the other, because we’re living in completely different worlds.
(Hopefully internet works long enough to post this. Pardon typos and weird constructions. Typing in more haste than usual. Now must open boxes to find essentail supplies to run the house.)