Archive for May, 2021

The “Collapse” of Traditional Publishing?

For the past several years there have been various “furors” in the F&SF writing community about who’s been publishing what, about who’s not publishing what, and about which type of books are getting nominated for what awards. The latest semi-furor seems to rest on the idea that traditional publishing houses, i.e., the big New York publishers, will collapse because they’re now publishing a much wider range of books, instead of largely publishing the kind of F&SF books released from roughly 1955 to around 2000, that is, largely male-dominated, action-oriented, speculative fiction where the emphasis was on science or magic and action. Not that a lot of other types of F&SF fiction weren’t also published, beginning in the 1970s and increasing over the years, but the trend has been toward a broader range of F&SF. The result, predictably, is that fewer writers who produce “traditional” male-oriented action F&SF are getting published, and those who aren’t getting published or not as much aren’t happy about it.

First, if I’ve figured correctly, fiction only comprises 45% of total book sales revenue, and F&SF only comprises about 15-17% of total fiction sales, or roughly seven percent of total revenues. I may be a bit off, but those figures are in the right ball park.

The other aspect I’ve noticed is that, very quietly, the traditional publishers are inspecting their bottom lines and weeding out editors and imprints that aren’t selling that well. I don’t see them throwing out authors whose books sell well just because they write action-oriented fiction featuring predominantly male characters.

Second, over the past three centuries there’s always been a market for inexpensive written stories and entertainment, but who published it and how has changed over time.

The “penny-dreadfuls” of the mid-1800s in Great Britain were cheap, usually gory. adventure/crime/horror stories aimed at young men, and by the end of the nineteenth century, the market was swamped with “penny” knockoffs. They were printed on paper so flimsy that very few examples remain.

In turn, they were followed, not only in Great Britain, but in the United States, and elsewhere, by the era of pulp magazines, which by the mid-twentieth century largely gave way to the mass market paperback. I was personally very familiar with F&SF mass market paperbacks, because my mother had a small gray bookcase filled with them, and they cost during that time from thirty-five to fifty cents, thirty-five cents then being roughly equivalent to $3.50 today. But what gets overlooked in such comparisons is that that thirty-five cent paperback was only 150 pages long, compared to the massive 350-600 page plus paperbacks of today. In essence, mass market paperbacks cost about as much per page as they did sixty years ago.

The cost problem isn’t so much inflation; it’s purchasing power. In 1960, a worker could buy at least two paperbacks for an hour’s minimum wage. Today, an hour’s work at the federal minimum wage won’t even buy one mass market paperback.

This makes lower-cost e-books more attractive, and with the advent of e-books, writers who don’t want to deal with traditional publishers or writers rejected by them can self-publish, and most of those who do so charge less than traditional publisher. Often, as was the case with the penny-dreadfuls and pulps, the production quality and distribution leave something to be desired. But sometimes, those production qualities are good, and sometimes the writing is also good, but, from what I’ve seen and sampled, on the whole most indie-produced work technically isn’t as good as what’s turned out by traditional publishing.

The bottom line, as I see it, is that indie publishing offers an opportunity for writers either rejected or ignored by traditional publishers, for various reasons, and some few will likely make far more money than if they were traditionally published.

Most won’t, but even those authors who are traditionally published aren’t always able to support themselves on their writing income. I was “successfully” published in the traditional fashion for twenty years before I could support myself on my writing. Today, unlike in the past, self-publishing is practically and economically feasible, and there’s still the opportunity to carve out an income and readership for those authors not chosen by traditional publishing.

But despite the appearance of indie publishing, I don’t see the traditional publishers going away, partly because while the indie market and the traditional market overlap, they’re not exactly the same, and, besides, the market’s big enough for both.


I’ve been reminded that during the later part of the pulp era and most of the mass market paperback era, comic books were also a significant print entertainment forces, and, of course, now graphic novels are in the mix.

Lies Versus Selective Truth?

Once upon a time you could at least count on the vast majority of politicians in either party telling the truth some of the time and there being at least a grain or shade of truth in the rest of their statements. Like everything else in politics the speaking habits of the majority of politicians in both parties have polarized.

The majority of the Republican Party, in its efforts to hang on to what it believes are its core supporters, has essentially decided that even a pretense at speaking something vaguely resembling the facts is not only unnecessary, but that the only way it can hold onto any power – and possibly even win the next election – is to spread lies and more lies. Lies, of course, that are more attractive to Republican rank-and-file than the truth.

Now, there’s always been a strain of this in politics, the most notable in recent eras being the Republican Senator Joe McCarthy, who invented the numbers of Communists he thought was plausible in whatever group he was targeting at that moment. There’s also been a strain of virulent anti-immigrant “nativist” politics throughout our entire history as a nation. The “anti-black” politics permeated the Democratic Party until Lyndon Johnson pushed for civil rights, and then those who opposed full civil rights [or sometimes any civil rights] migrated to the Republican Party.

For all that, the current lies pushed by Republicans pretty much take the cake. No other political party has ever tried to deny the results of any national election by force. Sometimes, they’ve manipulated the system, but having a sitting President incite a riot to deny the results of an election is unprecedented. When a Republican congressman says that the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol wasn’t much more than a normal tourist event, when the Republican leader in the House of Representatives continues to insist that the election was stolen, when the Republican Party strips one of the most conservative members of its conference of her post because she stood up against those lies, it’s not about political beliefs, and it’s certainly not about anything close to the truth.

Now… the Democrats aren’t saints, and they often are very “selective” about the truth, but at least there’s some truth somewhere. They do have facts and statistics about oppression and Republican voter suppression, about poverty, and about the inadequacy of the minimum wage. It’s a shame that they’re not nearly as strong about economics, but we can survive bad economics, partly because economics work, despite the politicians, but laws based on lies will destroy a democratic society long before bad economics will, and bad economics can be fixed without resorting to a civil war.

After all, the last time states decided that mandating oppression and denying the vote was a state’s right didn’t turn out all that well.


The other day I ran across a reference that showed the percentage of national wealth in the U.S. held by “generations” when their median age reached 40. When the baby boomers reached forty, they held 21% of the national wealth; gen-X had 9% at age 40; while millennials, who just reached 40, hold only 5%. For a number of reasons, which I won’t go into here, that’s not surprising.

The next statement, however, did catch my eye, because the writer asked why the most-educated generation was the least wealthy and prosperous. Needless to say, my first reaction was to think “millennials” aren’t the most educated generation; they’re only the most ‘degreed’ generation.

As I’ve noted, on and off for years, overall, education has been dumbed down over the last fifty years, largely because of the push to get more high school and college graduates. On the one hand, there’s no doubt that the brightest, most educated millennials are generally as bright and as educated as the brightest in any previous generation, but to get there, they’ve had to pile up graduate degrees, and, as a result, have also piled up enormous debt, which is obviously one of the reasons they have a smaller share of the national wealth.

As for those other millennial college graduates, the ones who aren’t at the very top, I personally believe they’ve been even more cheated than those millennials skilled and fortunate enough to come out on top. The remaining millennials, in all too many instances, labor under the illusion that they’re well-educated, even when they cannot write a coherent paragraph, analyze a problem, complete a task without detailed instruction and continual supervision, or understand that every single profession requires a great deal of grunt work, perhaps high-level grunt work, but grunt-work all the same. Too many of them have been so “spoon fed” mere bits of knowledge and are so afraid of making as mistake that they have very little, if any, initiative.

It’s not that they’re without intelligence or ability. It’s that they’ve never been taught how to fully use those abilities, nor have they been taught young that failure isn’t fatal and that there are always consequences. It’s that the education system, society, and, frankly, often their parents, have failed them, and it’s been an incredibly expensive failure, both for them and society. While almost no one in power will admit this failure, at the same time the costs to these “lost millennials,” and to society, are still piling up and will for years to come.

The Forgotten Point

With all the furor about inequality of income, inequality in education, and statistics being tossed out about how poorly minorities do on standardized tests, maybe all the experts and education consultants ought to take a hard look at some basic facts. The 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 37% of U.S. high school seniors could read proficiently and less than 25% were proficient in mathematics. Interestingly enough, in 2018, roughly 37% of Americans had a bachelor’s degree.

The bottom line is fairly simple. If a student isn’t proficient in reading and mathematics, the odds are extremely high that they won’t do well college or in most high-paying fields. Not only that, but roughly half of adolescents and young adults with criminal records have reading difficulties. Similarly, about half of youths with a history of substance abuse also have reading problems.

Study after study has shown that the vast majority of students who don’t learn to read well in grade school never will catch up, which is borne out by the fact that 63% of high school seniors still can’t read proficiently. This isn’t helped by the fact that high school students have moved from reading to other leisure entertainment venues over the last 50 years. In 1970, 70% read from magazines or books daily; today the figure is 16%, and reading bits and pieces from a computer screen isn’t the same as reading a book.

In addition, individuals who develop reading skills are far more likely to develop writing skills, and the decline in writing skill among students entering college is at least partly, if not largely, linked to the decline in reading – both reading required in school and reading for pleasure or self-education.

As I’ve noted in other blogs, basic reading and writing are skills that need to be learned before the brain’s linguistic centers mature, which generally occurs in the mid-teens – certainly well before students enter college. What politicians and bureaucrats – and too many activists – tend to overlook is that mastery of the basic skills of reading and mathematics at an early age is far more important than all the furor over tests, GPA, social/economic inequality… or even a broad curriculum or cultural diversity.

Admittedly, students who come from higher economic backgrounds have a tremendous advantage because their background boosts the skills and referents essential to become a proficient reader. But as certain schools have demonstrated, those skills have been successfully taught to the most economically disadvantaged children. The larger problem is that too much is being “taught” too early to far too many students who don’t have the linguistic skills to really grasp that knowledge… or to learn material on their own, which becomes increasingly important in secondary and higher education.

The furor over tests such as the SAT or ACT misses a fundamental point. The test scores reflect, not just raw intelligence, but also the ability to process the material swiftly and accurately. Since most tests are timed, students who cannot read quickly and well and calculate quickly and accurately are penalized and classified as less able. And, unfortunately, they’ll be “penalized” for the rest of their life, because employers want jobs done quickly and well. Slow readers and calculators may be accurate, but in the real world time is money.

The solution doesn’t lie in removing or changing standardized tests, or in fiddling with college admission criteria. It lies in improving those two basic skills at a young age, and I don’t see the many educators or any politicians on any level addressing that in a meaningful or useful way. Until it is, all the proposed reforms involving colleges and higher education are essentially rearranging the same old flawed furniture.

The Power of Words

There’s been a great deal of talk about words, and their power, and a great deal of disagreement about that power. But while I’ve heard a great deal of rhetoric, from what I’ve seen and heard, far too much outrage, energy and effort has been placed on attacking verbal minimization and micro-aggressions, which – although painful, discriminatory, and symptomatic of racism, sexism, and just plain rudeness and bad manners – are not where the real damage is caused by words.

The real damage caused by words is the ever-growing web of untruths, knowing misstatements, and blatant lies harnessed in service of oppression and discrimination. Restrictive voting rules that benefit those in power do far more damage than the micro-aggressions and verbal “sins” that seem to consume the “woke” community. So do the words in laws that establish and maintain income inequality through massive tax breaks for corporations and the affluent. Or the words that pit lower income whites against minorities, when both are victims of preferential treatment of the affluent.

We now have the greatest dichotomy between the wealthy and the poor in our history. We have an education system rigged against minorities and the poor. We have a crumbling infrastructure in every state in the union. I live the state with supposedly the best infrastructure, and Utah gets a C minus – and we’re the best?

Yet the Republicans are consumed with the big lie of a stolen election, one that election officials in both parties have called the fairest ever with absolutely no actual evidence of any fraud that could have changed the outcome anywhere. And the use of that lie has resulted new discriminatory laws and legislation across the nation.

At the same time, the left, perhaps in frustration, is spending far too much time and effort on attacking individuals for how they address people, rather than addressing the real problem with words and attacking the misuse of words in matters that affect the structure of society and its power base.

Most of the micro-aggressions and verbal assaults will diminish markedly if the poor and minorities gain political power… and that’s where the battles need to be fought.

Or, put more crudely, in the words of Lyndon Johnson, “If you got ‘em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.

Language follows power, not the other way around.

“Freedom” Talk

I’m so sick and tired of people – especially the extremists – insisting that they deserve the freedom to say whatever they please, regardless of the consequences. And I’m particularly angry at people, particularly the far right, who insist that they have the “right” to lie, to reject verified facts, or to present facts in a misleading context. The fact is, as illustrated by the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, that lies and distortions undermine social order and can lead to injury and death.

This isn’t anything new. The idea of a peaceful ante-bellum south was also always a lie. The pre-war southern political power structure continually feared a slave revolt, and the oppression and physical abuse of slaves has been well-documented. Even the “gallant” Robert E. Lee is documented to have beaten a slave.

The 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy vs. Ferguson that “separate but equal” was acceptable was a lie, because the white power structure had no intent whatsoever in providing “equal” access or facilities, and when black communities managed to create prosperity, all too often white vigilantes tore them down and terrorized and/or killed blacks who had the temerity rise toward equality.

When the last election showed that minorities were getting close to equal rights to vote, what happened? Republicans in state after state immediately pushed, and often passed, legislation that makes it harder for those in less affluent communities to vote. And they’re justifying it with the lie of almost non-existent “voter fraud.” Even the far-right Heritage Foundation’s vaunted study on voter fraud could only find a handful of individual cases in over twenty years of federal elections.

Trump and his supporters are pushing for the legal right to lie under the guise of free speech and the idea that they have the right to lie and distort and to use public media to do so

The problem is, of course, is that the unscrupulous and corrupt will use any tool to obtain power and to maintain that power. Those who are honest and law-abiding don’t want to restrict free speech, but without a government check on unregulated freedom of speech in a high-tech mass communications society, it’s beginning to appear that the lies will eventually prevail. Yet if government has the power to stop the lies, whoever controls the government will eventually control the people.

The only way to stop the loss of real freedom is for people, both as individuals and in groups, to reject the lies and insist on “all the facts, all the time.” The facts, all the facts. Not what you believe, not what you want, but the facts.

Unfortunately, too many Americans are more vested in believing comforting lies espoused by the leaders of their “tribes,” rather than in looking for a truth based on facts. To maintain freedom requires the strength to face the facts, both when they’re comforting and when they’re not. Insisting on comforting lies has always led to authoritarian rulers and loss of freedom.

“Woke” and Context

The “cancel culture” is close to being out of control – or maybe it is already. On the one side, there is an extreme left that sees the current socio-economic structure and culture as fatally flawed and that takes even slight lapses and misunderstandings as intentional slights or attacks, and on the right, a mass of conservatives who insist that everything is just fine the way it is and that, even if it’s not, the extreme leftists are taking things far too far.

What I’ve noticed repeatedly is how often matters are taken out of context. For example, a performing arts instructor who had worked with a student for more than three years, giving that student additional instruction, alerting the student to opportunities and funding, and going the extra mile, wrote the student an email to point out that the student had showed a considerable lack of courtesy and respect in handling a situation, adding a note that such behavior would hurt the student if repeated in professional situations because the performing arts community can be a very small world at times. The student ended up filing a grievance that almost resulted in the instructor being dismissed. The instructor was trying to be helpful, alerting the student to an unprofessional behavior, nothing more, but because of the ultra-sensitivity of the words along the lines of “it’s a small world,” the administration panicked. That situation was far different from the ones where Harvey Weinstein used those words to threaten young actresses not to report his physical assaults.

Instances like those of the instructor are far from rare and are getting more and frequent, and I suspect it’s because the “cancel culture” is far too focused on “forbidden” buzzwords than on evaluating words and phrases in their context, and, from what I’ve observed, often too little attention is paid to actions that indicate that the speaker certainly meant neither offense nor harm.

Likewise, conservatives have little or no understanding of the pain that lies behind the use of various phrases that anger the left, because they don’t or can’t understand the context in which those words and phrases were used, both in the past and at times still in the present.

All too often context is everything, but the shouts are so loud that context is lost.