Books and Numbers

A great many people have pointed out just how much mere numbers miss the mark in education, politics, and business, but do they miss the mark in the world of books and publishing as well? I suspect, at least in some ways, that they do.

Is a book that sells a million copies necessarily a “good” book? That depends on what one means by good. Such a book is obviously good at entertaining readers if it sells that many copies, but it may not be, and probably isn’t, in terms of other “literary” qualities, in that the grammar and structure may be weak, and often there are great improbabilities in the background and economic/political structures of such books. But none of that matters all that much to the readers, especially if the book is fast-paced with an interesting plot, or if it has other qualities, such as sexual intrigue, overwhelming romance, or characters that suck the reader in.

By the same token, just because a book doesn’t sell well doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. It might not sell well because it’s been published by a small publisher, or because it’s a book about a character or situation that doesn’t have great appeal. It could even be a book by a major publisher and author with good reviews and those readers who liked it thought a great deal of it… but it just didn’t appeal to a larger audience. Then, it could just be a really bad book. There are some published. But the mere sales numbers say nothing, really, about why it didn’t sell more copies.

Even in the case of best-selling books, the numbers can be deceiving. A novel that sells 50,000 hardcover copies in a week will likely be near the top of the bestseller charts and possibly at the very top, even if total sales over its lifetime are only 150,000 copies in all formats, while a book that sells 30,000 copies a year for 25 years, but never a huge amount at any one time, will never appear on any bestseller list, yet will sell five times as many copies as the short-term wonder.

Publishers plan their publication schedules in hopes of maximizing sales. That’s why any given publisher’s top five authors seldom have new releases in the same month, and possibly not even in the same publishing season. Many consumers only have limited dollars for purchases, and the same is true of the book retailers, whether they’re Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or the local independent. So what’s available, and when, to the reader is in fact based on the numbers, and the interplay between what different publishers offer may result in higher or lower sales for the author, and the publisher. And first-time or midlist authors who release a book in the same genre or subgenre at the same as a mega-selling author may see their sales suffer somewhat, depending on how strong their reader base is, which, again, is not necessarily a reflection on how good the book is, but the numbers may make it harder to publish another book or may result in a comparatively lower advance on the next book.

There are some numbers whose impact I’ve never figured out, like the time when I was told one of my books was the best-seller of the month for the largest book wholesaler in the country. I’m guessing that meant that B&N and the brick and mortar retailers had under-ordered copies and the customer orders required getting immediate copies from the local distribution warehouse of the wholesaler… but that’s just a guess. And then there was the time when an ebook version of one of my books was in the top 100 in the Apple store serving Finland – just for a fraction of one day. That had to be a statistical fluke… I think.

So… take what all those numbers and what they mean with more than a grain of salt. The only semi-certain meaning is that more sales usually mean more money for the publisher, but not always all that much more for the author, at least if it’s a media tie-in novel.

Series Mania

Until comparatively recently, in the speculative fiction field, fantasy was the home of the endless, or seemingly endless series, while science fiction sported stand-alone titles or short series. From what I can see, now there’s little difference between fantasy and science fiction in the sense that more and more of new S.F. titles being published are those in a series… long series after long series.

What’s behind this shift? My gut reaction, unsupported by any statistical or other empirical evidence, is that it’s the result of the confluence of marketing gurus and the ever-decreasing attention span of the vast majority of readers, who tend to forget authors more quickly if they don’t see their books on shelves or the internet equivalents. It’s also easier to market a series by an author than individual stand-alone and unrelated novels, and a series also provides marketing continuity.

I’ve already noticed that the sales of my books drop off far more rapidly after the book is released than was the case a decade ago. Part of that is, of course, because more sales come from Amazon and other online sources than ever before, and many of those sales are pre-release, something that was effectively impossible before internet marketing, so that a greater percentage of sales occur either before a book’s release or fairly immediately after release. Another factor is the decline of mass market paperback sales, which often persisted in significant numbers for months, if not years. Now those continuing sales tend to exist only for on-going series, especially those with media tie-ins.

With comparatively fewer and fewer titles being released in mass market paperback, and those being printed in smaller numbers for most authors, authors of single books lose market presence, because readers don’t see their books for as long on shelves or on new release lists. The answer? Write books in a series. I’ve also heard from at least a few up-and-coming writers that editors and agents want a commitment to a series.

Personally, I’m finding it harder and harder to discover stand-alone SF books, and I can’t believe I’m alone. At the same time, it’s also very clear that stand-alones generally generate far less revenue than volumes in a series, which is why I write fewer of them. But I haven’t given up yet. Whether I do, in the end, though, is up to the readers, and whether you buy the stand-alones, such as Solar Express, which will be coming out in November.

Readers, Conventions, and Sad/Rabid Puppies

One thing I’ve discovered over the years as an author is that most people don’t really read books as much as they claim they do, and that, except for the comparatively rare devoted readers, any conversation about publishing and books lasts less than five minutes with most people, no matter how educated or intelligent they are. But as my wife reminds me, the same is true about her profession – voice and opera. When I went back to my college reunion last month [the first and possibly the last reunion I will attend], a number of my classmates made kind remarks about the number of books I had written and published… and in less than a few minutes the conversation was elsewhere – and these men were all high-paid and respected professionals. Interestingly enough, perhaps one of the best conversations I had was with the one who’d become a professional guide and bush pilot in Alaska. But then, only a handful of all of them have ever read science fiction or fantasy.

I suspect other authors, especially F&SF authors, run into the same situations, and I have no doubt that devoted readers have the same problem. Why else would so many flock to conventions? And why else would so many F&SF readers take off weekends and sometimes even a week to mix with other readers and professionals and would-be professionals in the field? [As a side note, this casual disregard for the written word is possibly why those individuals who are not F&SF readers join book-reading clubs, because that may be the only alternative for them.]

Some of the most involved F&SF readers do feel incredibly strongly, as evidenced by the furor over the Sad/Rabid Puppies slate voting for the Hugo awards, strongly enough that a number of those involved even reject suggestions that some moderation just might be in order, all of which reminds me of the ancient political furor over Barry Goldwater’s 1964 declaration that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And… moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

The problem in both politics and the current Sad/Rabid Puppies kerfuffle is that each side’s assumptions behind the words differ. Conservatives view “liberty” and “justice” in terms of property, while liberals focus on human rights. I’d like to think that moderates realize that both property and human rights are essential to a functioning society.

Likewise in the F&SF kerfuffle, it seems to me that the Sad/Rabid Puppies tend to focus more extensively, at times almost exclusively, on the importance of action, storyline, and individual worth and action, while the more “liberal” side insists that the context of the society/world in which storylines exist should play a far greater role, and that no functional future society should be racially/culturally unidimensional. The Sad/Rabid Puppies appear to believe that the other side wants to continue using the Hugo awards to reward works and individuals that further their goals, while the “liberal” side believes that the Sad/Rabid Puppies want to wrench the awards back to representing the male, patriarchal U.S. culture of the 1950s. That’s an oversimplification, since each group has individuals who don’t fit those definitions, but I think it captures the gist of the conflict.

The sad problem is that the unspoken simplistic assumptions on each side ignore their commonalities, and the fact that, for F&SF to continue as a vital form, elements of both sides need to be represented and that neither should “dominate” the awards. Of course, since the politicians and all too many voters haven’t been able to comprehend this concept, why should mere readers and authors?

The Illusion of Social Media

One of the great benefits touted by exponents of social media is that it brings people together. It does indeed, but each social media group brings together only those sharing similar views.

A good example of this lies in the “sad puppies/rabid puppies” kerfuffle involving “slate voting” to determine the nominees for the annual World Science fiction awards. The situation continues and appears to be getting increasingly acrimonious, with partisans on each side making declarations and demands, and even threatening the boycott of the books of one major F&SF publisher because of the intemperate comments of two employees on social media.

From what I can tell, this acrimony likely involves at most perhaps several thousand individuals, and probably less than a few hundred who are deeply involved and committed… and who feel that the entire literary “culture” of fantasy and science fiction is threatened in one way or another, with the “liberal” side declaring that “traditional” F&SF is the bastion of old white males who embody all of those stereotypes, and the “sad/rabid puppy” side declaring that the liberals have hijacked F&SF into everything they detest, including novels that focus on multi-culturalism, gender diversity, extreme environmentalism, etc. Each side is industriously employing social media to assail the other.

The truth is that F&SF is big enough for both sides, and in fact is far bigger than either. Most readers haven’t even heard of this “death of F&SF as we know it” jeremiad. What’s published today in F&SF spans an incredible range, enough that a careful reader can find almost any political “range” or social structure. Yes… there is a struggle over which group controls the awards, but, face it, literary awards are always political, and always have been. At times, usually rarely, excellence triumphs over politics, but most of the time, awards reflect the social and political biases of those controlling the process. Thankfully, fiction publishers try to determine what readers want, rather than what literary groups declare is “good.” And readers know what they want, and that’s what they buy.

Unhappily, the “puppies” kerfuffle has far larger implications. Each side in this tempest in a large teapot has used social media to convince itself that not only is its view correct, but that far, far more people share this view than in fact do. Social media has become a tool for group self-selection, and group isolation. This seems to be resulting in greater polarization, greater intransigence on the part of each self-selected group, and a far greater sense of self-importance than is in any way justified.

After all, our entire planet has a population of eight billion or so, and is just one of eight in our solar system, which is just one of over fifty billion stars and associated solar systems in our galaxy. Current observations suggest over two hundred billion galaxies in the universe. Most F&SF devotees should know this, but paradoxically, the more invested they are in their identity in F&SF, and the more involved in social media, the less they seem to recognize this.

And that is the great danger of great investment in social media, which all too often reinforces group identity to the exclusion of even considering the views and values of other groups. Is this really desirable? Or do you want everything to be a replay of the American Congress, which has used technology and social media to effectively polarize U.S. politics into near total gridlock, where each side refuses to consider almost anything suggested by the other? Or of academic politics where the vast majority of university faculties are dominated by either the left or the right, and where pettiness and vicious infighting abound, now intensified by email and social media?


American politics has always contained an element of “gotcha” mudslinging designed to reveal or suggest unpopular attributes or acts of candidates for public office, but in recent years it appears that all too many campaigns have become little more than contests dominated by gotcha elements and efforts.

In general, voters have become, in my opinion, ever more hypocritical. We revel in the efforts of the media to dig up dirt and distasteful items about the candidates we dislike, and we ignore the unpleasantnesses revealed about “our” candidate. We claim virtues we often don’t exhibit, but castigate candidates whose actions reveal that they’re not all that different from the rest of us. Let’s face it. Everyone has skeletons in their closet… and if not in their closet, then in the closets of their families and associates. That’s why it’s not exactly surprising that the majority of violent crimes are committed in the home and that the largest percentage of murders are committed by someone who knew or was related to the victim.

Even some of our greatest presidents weren’t exactly saints. Jefferson’s intimate relations with a slave who also happened to be his wife’s half-sister resulted in a number of children born on the wrong side of the blanket. Lincoln was consistently depressed, told thoroughly racist and vulgar jokes in his early years, and was married to a woman who was anything but stable. Franklin Roosevelt not only hid the severity of his polio; he also hid the number of extra-marital affairs. Jackson married a woman when she was still married to another man. George Washington owned the largest distillery in the United States when he was president and sent troops to put down the whiskey rebellion. He also persuaded Congress to buy stone from his quarries for the capitol building, stone that eventually had to be replaced because of its deficiencies.

That didn’t mean that these men didn’t accomplish a great deal as presidents, because they did. It does suggest that we might be better off as voters if we stopped focusing exclusively on their negatives.

After all, would you want to be judged solely on your failures and worst traits?