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Playing the ponies; or “I don’t want to be in marketing, but here I am anyway”

Image by Bhakti Iyata from Pixabay

It’s a rotten time to be a writer. Leaving aside the creativity-crushing effects of indoor monotony, the usual mechanics of the publishing business are showing their fault lines: authors can’t go on book tours, covers can’t catch consumers’ eyes as they perambulate around shops, and while ebook and audio bundles could be a cool thing, I suspect the big houses are concerned about what will happen to all that easy-to-break DRM’d material after the crisis is over — which is what they were worrying about before, but it’s not a good look right now.

Marketing is one of those things that seemed to be broken well before all this, though, so I wanna talk about it briefly.

Creativity is not zero-sum game — ideas are a dime a dozen, every author has a different take, and even if they don’t, the audience may not care (see: stuffman’s Two Cakes comic) — but marketing is. The funds a publisher can put toward advertising creative endeavors is, generally, limited. Stuff costs money, and that money has to get allocated. Publishers make a guess as to what’s going to sell, and allocate money toward that — just like any other company.

It’s all very uncomfortable. Publishing needs content from authors to have any sort of business. Readers, however, are fickle and publishers are not infallible — they don’t actually know what’s going to sell well, regardless of the money thrown at any one project. So there’s incentive there to publish a lot and then see what the reading public likes. But that “publish all the things!” ethos rides up against the zero-sum issue of before: there’s only so much money. So… the publishers make a bet, pick what they think is going to be successful, and hope they’re right. They’ll stack the deck as much as they can — advertising and marketing and whatnot — but again: they don’t actually know how it’s going to turn out. One tent-pole book that sells well because of a heavy advertising push can support publishing dozens of other books… one or more of which may end up being equal or larger successes, because of talent or audience whim or sudden Oprah visitation.

It makes sense, when you look at it from that angle. If, however, you’re the writer on the other end of the equation… it feels a lot like being a content-producing monkey. Or, to put it a more palatable way, vastly underappreciated and overworked for the pay we receive.

A real-life example:

I’ve had one book published (co-authored, published by Tor Books, so there was a Real Publisher with Real Money and a Real Contract), and let me tell you, I was surprised by what I was asked to do. I needed to provide a list of reviewers for them to send ARCs (but why didn’t they have their own list?), and I had to set up my own interviews (but I didn’t know anybody, couldn’t they at least connect me…?).

What I didn’t realize at the time was that another book was coming out in the same genre at almost the exact same time — but it was a three-book deal as opposed to the single one we had, and they already had all three books in hand. So, where does the money go? There isn’t an infinite amount of it — and “money” here includes stuff like the literal hours in the day. Hours spent on our book were hours that couldn’t be spent on that other one.

Do all that math, and what comes out is that other book, and its associated series, was a better bet, business-wise. Gotta put your money on the horse that gives you the best chance of winning. Those books got the major marketing push, and ours didn’t.

(Note: Being able to rationalize it doesn’t actually make it feel better.)

I have no idea what the other book’s sales were like; ours weren’t great. But I had a decent advance that never earned out, so between me and the publisher, technically I walked away the winner. And the publisher didn’t collapse into financial ruins when my book didn’t take off, because that other book — and any of the other better-selling books that came out that year, and the backlist of bestsellers, and the constant promise of future bestsellers — allowed for them to take a loss on mine, and losses on many other future books that they’ll publish anyway on the off chance that one of them’ll be a winner anyway.

I don’t have a solution for any of this. Publishing houses are doing a ridiculous, constant balancing act that absolutely shouldn’t work, just like how “playing the ponies” should not constitute anybody’s idea of a career. It’s a wonder that the whole thing hasn’t collapsed before now.

The reality is, unless I plan to pull an Emily Dickinson and hide all my fiction away in a drawer somewhere — which I’m not — I have to accept that part of the whole writing gig is marketing myself, because there’s never going to be any guarantee that a publisher is going to do it for me. I have to make my own luck, stack my own deck, bet on my own horse.

I just wish that for all the math publishers are doing on their end, they’d do some on ours. Because they have a limited number of dollars and hours to put to a project… and so do I. And if they can’t find a way to pay authors to be both their content creators and their marketing team… well. That’s a gamble that might eventually cost them everything.

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a little bit goes a long way

I’m in the middle of outlining a romance novel that has a lot of potential endings — and several of those possible ending are polyamorous in nature. It’s making me realize one of the weird ways fiction doesn’t necessarily mirror reality.

Romance fiction tends to be, largely, monosexual — one person meets one person, they fall in love, happily ever after (HEA). On some rare occasions, though — and this appears in both original romance novels and in romantic fanfiction — you get a polyamorous solution to everyone’s will-they-won’t-they.

When an author chooses the polyamorous option, they’re trying to demonstrate how it works for an audience that may not necessarily have any experience of it in real life. And in fiction, it looks great. There’s support, there’s a lot of love, there’s frequently really inventive sex scenes. Two things I’ve noticed, though:

  • The kind of poly that tends to show up as the HEA is polyfidelity, or maybe “kitchen-table poly“. In polyfidelity, everyone’s in a relationship with everyone else, like a closed triangle (or whatever shape the polycule is). In kitchen-table poly, everyone might not be in a relationship with everyone else, but they’re all involved in one another’s lives to the degree that they could sit around the kitchen table in their pajamas.
  • You don’t see a lot of parallel or solo poly — at least, not being practiced by the main character. In parallel poly, multiple relationships are being maintained separately; in solo, the poly person maintains multiple relationships but is “settling down” with no one person in particular.

I don’t think kitchen-table or polyfidelity or any of those big group styles of poly are the default of poly — and I don’t think they’re necessarily better than parallel or solo poly, just because we see it in fiction more often. Rather, I think that it’s difficult to write parallel or solo poly sympathetically, in the manner that we’re used to writing about mono relationships.

Writing (for me) is all about having a toolbox of ideas and hacks and methods to convey particular ideas, tools that allow me to translate the messy story in my head to something that looks relatively similar in a complete stranger’s head. If I try to convey one character’s love and desire for multiple other characters, and those characters are all separate or otherwise don’t interact… that sort of writing exists, but generally it’s used to denote a cheater. Even if the author explicitly states that that’s not the case, the author has to contend with their reading audience’s years’ worth of experience decoding and interpreting monosexual fiction — and their own experience writing it. It’s just… easier to write polyamory as if it’s just very complex monogamy.

The truth is, though, that it’s a different bird. And that can land some readers in trouble, particularly those who use fiction to game-test ideas in a sandbox before playing them in the real world. If they’re presented with a type of relationship that looks like it solves their own problems, and then don’t do any research outside of fiction… well, let us consider the example of 50 Shades of Grey and BDSM, and move on from there.

So in working on the ending to my romance, I’m stuck trying to come up with the HEA while at the same time maintaining what I’d like to think is reality for a large subset of the polyamorous community (and shouldn’t they get to see themselves in fiction too?). It’s frustrating work — but, I suppose, that’s why authors do it. Maybe I’ll be the one to crack the code.

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the writing life (and the lies we wish were true)

I’ve recently joined one of those movie theatre loyalty programs, where you get to watch multiple movies over the course of a week for the cost of essentially two movies a month (which I would do anyway, so this works well for me). Because of it, I end up seeing a lot of films I wouldn’t otherwise, which is useful to expand my basic collection of storylines.

Recently I saw both Knives Out (a cozy murder mystery comedy with attractive sweaters) and Ford v Ferrari (a historical bio-pic Fast and Furious with more engineering porn). I enjoyed both very much, though only Knives Out had really been on my radar. But getting the opportunity to see both let me make some connections I don’t think I would’ve otherwise– specifically, how the two movies frame owning one’s own business.

Without going into spoilers, Knives Out features the patriarch of a family that has become vastly wealthy because he is a best-selling mystery writer. His millions allow for a giant weird mansion and supporting two generations of wastrel children — all without (SOMEHOW) film, audio, or any other adaptations of his work. This is a depressingly popular trope — when I was a kid, I used to think very dark thoughts about anything that depicted writers as effete artists wandering around sipping martinis in their Manhattan penthouses while lushly dropping marabou feathers from under layer after layer of silk robes.

“Maryanne!” they’d faintly screech, staring at the distance, cradling their own elbow while sipping an artisanally cheap whiskey. “Fetch the typewriter.” They’d take a drag from their cigarette. (There’s a cigarette now.) “And call Mr. Spielberg.” Exhale. “I’m ready to talk.”

Blargh.

In contrast, Ford v Ferrari features not one but two small car-related businesses — one of which is even fairly successful, all things considered — and both are constantly cutting corners with sales, flirting with bankruptcy, and willing to put up with a considerable amount of bullshit to make ends meet. This I’m familiar with– talk to any working writer (or read Kameron Hurley’s breakdowns of what a successful writing life actually pays, or listen to piles of excellent Ditch Digger podcast episodes) and it’s basically the same scenario. There are very few (very few) authors who can survive without a regular day job and/or a support network that subsidizes their work. There are several terrible true-life stories of authors who try to have the marabou feather life and discover that it is wildly impossible.

And yet, Knives Out showcases that trope again, and the regular public nod sagely and take it as a given.

The closest I’ve come to figuring out the difference here is a double-punch of:

(1) Writing is still a Vast Mystery, unlike blue-collar and mundane car repair businesses. There are a sufficient number of people who either know or are blue-collar workers that it’s not a real question how and where money goes. Cash and accrual businesses, with hourly/shift work, are basically the options at play — as opposed to the labyrinthine nonsense of incremental portions of leased rights across multiple companies and languages, etc etc, that makes up a typical writing career.

(2) Writing produces Art, which is a luxury, and luxuries cost money, and therefore… artists are rich? (This goes back to the Mystery aspect of how money works in publishing.) Whereas cars are, for many, a basic life necessity. Someone’s getting rich, but it’s probably Companies run by rotund men in glass-windowed offices, laughing over stock reports while burning Kobe steaks to light their bespoke cigarillos. In fact, it would seem that the popular trope of the martini-drinking artist frames writers as essentially being on par with capitalist fat cats.

I don’t have a particular solution to this, aside from more writers accurately portraying themselves in fiction (which is also my solution for accurate robots, accurate children, and accurate dark gods of New Hampshire). But it’s still very fascinating to see the exact same lifestyle appear at the exact same time in the exact same media– and have those expressed in their stories and to their audiences completely differently.

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Writing without engagement (or: livejournal was really great, right?)

For the last several years, I’ve engaged in micro-blogging: Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr. All of these create an “active” online presence that doesn’t have to actually create anything new (though many do) — one can instead just like, or reblog, or provide a two-word comment, and be considered alive and well.

The other day I went trawling through my old and now very much defunct livejournal, looking for a particular essay I’d written describing the lead up to the “Sicilian Vespers“. And what with one thing and another, I ended up rereading huge swathes of posts, going back years. It was… strange. I had posts about my daily life; posts about my thoughts and feelings; posts with bad jokes; posts where I excitedly shared something I’d learned, or commented on the happenings of the world, or just trolled my friends at length. It was a very different sort of engagement than I have with my current apps and platforms — instead of sharing what’s clever, or attempting to dip into meme status, I just… wrote what I wanted to write. A diary with an acknowledged open audience.

So I might just go ahead and start writing like that again– because why not? It’ll either be read or it won’t, but I will have written it, and I will be able to read it in the future, and shouldn’t that be enough? The act of writing is an exponential exercise — every word becomes ten more at some near-distant point. And even if it didn’t… there’s value in writing for oneself. Of looking inside and writing what one sees without first transmogrifying it into fiction. Of writing something meant to be experienced separate from the “engagement” of social media.

(And also I want another venue to talk about the Sicilian Vespers without having to count my characters or use shitpost styling to go viral. It’s a wild bit of history. Fuck ~engaging~ my audience.)