I’m not a dialectical materialist. I’m not a materialist at all. I think there are more things under heaven and Earth, etc. I think it’s entirely possible everything we know and everything we do in this life is the tip of a massive iceberg that we’re simply not equipped to see.
That tendency wasn’t helped by husband who studied math till the point it becomes philosophy, and sons who studied physics to the point where it becomes religion.
I don’t actually spend much time thinking about the submerged part of the iceberg. By its nature it’s unknowable. If it’s there we’ll know one day, and there’s no point stressing about it.
But given that, it’s weird that in my thirties I fell madly in love with economics.
Economics was one of those subjects I was very badly taught in High School. Hell, I think most of us were badly taught economics at every level, because the people who teach it now are very invested in making economics into a sort of magic. They don’t understand that the “Science” part of economics means it has natural laws, and you can no more legislate the flow of money than you can legislate the flow of water. You can, as with water, divert if, dam it up or make it do something, sure. But people who do this to money don’t realize it’s like doing it to water: there are always consequences. Some of them will be unintended. Also, do it enough and you might end up with a mess in your hands that you can’t pull apart no way, no how.
I fell in love with economics after reading a lot of Sowell, and picking some very select manuals to feed my itch. The problem, of course, is most of the manuals were falsified and din’t relate to economics and the flow of wealth any better than a magic spell relates to that which its trying to affect.
From a credulous point of view, and falsifying results, you could think it does, but… not really.
And yet, as I started looking at things around me and paying attention, so many “inexplicable” and “strange” phenomena were explained by obvious economics that it boggled the mind.
Take for instance the way science fiction and fantasy had changed, from having people actually write stories and publish stories for the public, to being a kind of involuted display of precious and difficult wording wrapped around a core of impeccable Marxist philosophy.
That one took a bit to sink in. Yes, like most human beings on the planet, I knew that books used to pay (sort of) a living wage. It wasn’t exactly palatial, ever, but people — as in men, supporting families — used to live from writing. Articles, stories, novels. And live decent, middle class lives.
Yeah, not a ton of the people who wanted to write got there, and those who did still lived a relatively precarious life, because free-lancers, but…
Until I broke in and started attending conventions (yes, I know, but I didn’t really know conventions existed. Came from elsewhere, remember?) I thought science fiction and fantasy was still, more or less, the panorama it had been when I read interviews with Heinlein or Clarke or one of them. This was aided by a bit of crazy in current culture, which is the tendency for the people in charge of a failing institution or industry to claim they’re not in charge and are, somehow, victims.
I expected to break into publishing and find myself in an environment of middle aged, bespectacled professional males. Yes, I know I should have realized otherwise from the names on the shelf, but everything I read said the field was dominated by middle aged men.
And then I broke in and went to a convention. Uh. It was all women, and “academic” males. Not a lot of males, either. The males were noticeably older, too. Women were my age (early thirties) or younger.
After that came other disillusions, including finding out that the field as bimodal: a very few people made millions, while a vast majority made pocket money.
The two are related. Yeah, okay, there’s a ton more to that, including that distribution was being distorted, with the push model, and that most of the women who ran the publishing houses couldn’t find financial sense with two hands and a seeing eye dog.
But at the bottom of it, at the very bottom, was economics. (And it was the pits.)
I sometimes think that liberals want the government to regulate every industry because they think that everyone is like them and will pay bottom dollar regardless of what it does to quality, but I’m perhaps being unfair.
True, Heinlein thought publishing was taken over by the left as far back as the forties (with some exceptions. Obviously.) And at least in Europe, I know it was. There have been books (triumphal ones) written about it.
But the problem might be more basic. First, there is the effect that if you edit for a long time you stop knowing what is good. Trust me, I’ve edited magazines. By the hundredth submission all you can say is “It’s typed and everything.” I mean, by then you can’t really pinpoint “quality.”
This means not only that editors who’ve been at it for years lose perspective and start looking at other “markers” of quality like “My Marxist college professor would think this was good.” BUT you start thinking that all writing is much of a muchness and writers are interchangeable widgets. If one won’t work for what you want, you get another one.
Contributing to this was the fact that most publishers for each field were a funnel. There would be say 3 million writers, and 30 book slots available at the five or so traditional publishers.
Yeah, sure “we’re picking the best” is what they said, but you can’t. Not with a flood of that magnitude. You can’t even (and most of them didn’t) read them all. You just grab a random few, or the few whose authors you’ve met, and if they’re okay and don’t have obvious grammatical mistakes (or have few of them) you publish that.
It would be like my handing you ten barrels of olives and telling you to pick the thirty best olives of the bunch. No one has the time or the space to examine every olive for firmness and color. You dip your hand in and pick thirty and if none of them is obviously mushy and pink, you got your thirty, which you’ll swear up and down are the best, because, well… you have to.
That kind of imbalance in supply and demand always lowers prices. If the olive doesn’t like the deal you offered it, you toss it back in the barrel and pick another of the millions of olives who will. You can do that forever. You have all day.
So, in the forties and fifties, advances for novels ran somewhere between 5k and 20k. Thing is, judging by people I know who were alive then, 10k was a living wage. Not crazy, but living, if you lived in a small town, etc. Also, “novel” was anywhere from 35k words upward, and your publisher encouraged you (at least if you sold at all) to write two or three a year.
By the time I came in around 98, the advances for most people (excluding superstars) were between 5k and 20k. Novels were around 200k words (and yeah, there was an economic reason for it too, but if I go into that, I’ll never be done.) And most publishers wanted you to publish a novel a year.
Also, I found out when my first series tanked and I tried to get agents, most of the field didn’t want to make money, and expected you to have another job.
I found this out because none of the agents I interviewed wanted to even try to sell my space opera (Darkship Thieves had been finished and in the drawer for five years then.) They all asked why I wanted to write “Schlock” when I could write beautiful “good” stuff like the Shakespeare series. And they all laid out this plan where I wrote a novel every two years, and meanwhile wrote for academic journals specializing in history and literature, to spread my name.
We’ll leave aside the fact that literary fantasy is something I enjoy writing once in a while, as a one-off, bu that dedicating my life to it would make me slit my wrists, and look at the economics. I made around 10k for each of the first three books, and they were taken out of print the minute they earned out. I got told by every agent “Yeah, that’s the top of sales for literary sf/f.” And when I told them I couldn’t live from that, they said “but you don’t live from that. You get a job teaching in college to pay the bills. You do this for art.”
This was usually when I slammed the phone down and said “Uh, no. I could teach in college now. It’s not what I want to do. I want to write for a living.” (I managed it, too, though sometimes it involved six books a year. Whether that’s responsible for the health breakdown that followed, I don’t know. It might have some relation, because autoimmune flares at stress. Doesn’t matter. I’m recovering, though the way up is kind of slow.)
I couldn’t understand why publishers (remember agents were really contractors for publishers) wanted prestige over money.
That is, until I started taking everything in account. This was brought home to me, by an add for an editor at Tor, from glassdoor, sent to me by a friend:
Senior Editor, Macmillan – New York, NY
Glassdoor Estimated Salary: $46k-$69k
Tor/Forge Books is looking to hire a Senior Editor who will acquire across the adult imprints, in science fiction and fantasy, mystery and suspense/thriller, and general fiction.
Acquire and edit approximately 10-15 original works of adult fiction per year, including developing cover concept, obtaining promotional quotes, and working closely with the author to create the best book possible
Interact with sales and marketing, advertising and promotion, and publicity departments to develop campaigns to present books as well as possible both in-house and to readers
Interact with production and art departments; write cover concepts; understand production process and attendant costs
Attend writers conferences and conventions to interact with writers, agents, and readers
Required Skills / Knowledge:
Strong developmental editing skills
Ability to write jacket, cover, and ONIX copy that attracts readers
Knowledge of many different types of genre fiction
Extensive network of literary agents
10+ years similar editorial experience
Educational Background Required:
No degree requirement
I have friends in NYC. 46k? you’ve got to be kidding me. 46k for a “senior” position? For crying in bed. It’s like trying to live on a 10k novel a year, in the rest of the country.
This also brought to mind something a mentor of mine told me when I was breaking in:
“You have to remember most editors/publishers are well-to-do mostly white women, who grew up upper class or upper middle class, went to the best colleges, and are still largely supported by (mostly) parents (even though a few of them are supported by) or husband. They’ve never had a job other than editing. They never had to work hard for something that would pay the rent. They have illusions of “art” and working to “better the world” and live in tiny NY apartments, and obsess about rats, but have no idea of real struggles, or how other people live.”
The mentor was trying to coax me on how to talk to them. I later found the mentor was right, at least for all editors/etc hired since the eighties.
And it only became more so.
So these people, who were really pampered their entire lives, and were doing this job for ideological and artistic reasons hired most people like them, and paid them the same sort of money “something to say I am a professional and have a career.”
Then, if they wondered at the falling print runs at all, they assumed it was because “people don’t read anymore. They watch TV” or “those ignorant hicks don’t appreciate the wonderful stuff I pick” or “Flyover country doesn’t read.”
In fact, what was happening is that these newly minted editors picked authors much like them, who wrote books about … well, about the things they knew. I mean, we SF/F writers try to stretch, but there are fundamentals of life that shape how you think.
There was no way that I, who had started working for money somewhere around 16 and who had moved across the ocean at 22 with nothing but 20kg of clothing, to marry a man who had only a little more, and who had been scraping, making and fixing for ten years to stay above water could even understand the mind set of people who had never gone short a meal in their lives, much less that they could understand my mind set and what shaped my world.
And there was no way, honestly, that most of the stuff these people picked, much less what they picked to push would make sense to 99.9% of Americans. Their sell through and penetration among the bien pensant was as good as ever, of course, but it didn’t really reach anyone else. (Hence the attraction of “flyover country doesn’t read.”)
It also explained/explains things like that picture of the “diverse” editorial board of the Puffington Host.
Aren’t you astounded at their diversity? Hey, look, there are a couple of Asian girls, and maybe a Latin chick (could be Italian.) Tremble before their diversity.
If you assume that with very few exceptions publishing has now been run by pretty pink princesses (granted, some of them male) for 30 years or so, it all becomes very clear, from their picks, to their certainty push was a good idea because it gave them more control, to the bizarre temper tantrums they throw and the names they call when their will isn’t done.
But it’s not their fault. It’s all economics. They can’t make a living on what the publishing houses are willing to pay. So they are doing it for the prestige, and hiring authors who are also doing it for the prestige (and cred that counts to their real, academic jobs.) The fact that the dogs just don’t like the food doesn’t penetrate, because in their world they have the best taste and if you don’t like what they pick, then you’re racisss sexissss homophobic. And if everything tanks, it’s okay. That’s not what they’re living from.
This in turn leads to publishing books no one wants to read, which leads to their having less money for editors and authors, which leads to…
Death spiral baby! Death spiral!
Indie didn’t kill traditional publishing. Traditional publishing committed suicide, and that space was vacant to be filled with something.
The worst part? Even when trad pub is limited to mega bestsellers and prestige editions and everything else is indie?
None of the people involved in this debacle will understand the cold equations at the base of their demise.