Friday, July 14, 2017

Soapy Sales

     Balph Eubank had joined the group around Dr. Pritchett, and was saying sullenly, “...no, you cannot expect people to understand the higher reaches of philosophy. Culture should be taken out of the hands of the dollar-chasers. We need a national subsidy for literature. It is disgraceful that artists are treated like peddlers and that art works have to be sold like soap.”
     “You mean, your complaint is that they don’t sell like soap?” asked Francisco d’Anconia.

     [Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged]

     This fine morning, Sarah Hoyt has an impassioned article at PJ Media about the offensive campaign by left-wing writers, critics, and publishers of fantasy and science fiction to denigrate – indeed, to delegitimize – older writers and older works in those genres that have remained popular. Here’s Sarah’s counterpunch – and she lands it right on the point of their collective chin:

     If the art is so great, how come no one is buying it? Besides the artist who is spending way too much time with absinthe and way too little time with quill and paper, or brushes and canvas, that is?

     Oh. I see. Because the general public is too stupid to appreciate the greatness of the artist. Because the artist is “ahead” of the public.

     The “artist ahead of the public” conceit has been used to rationalize just about every failure by a critically praised “artist,” regardless of his field, to make it big with the consuming public.

     The leftists’ sotto voce complaint, of course, is that despite their dominance of the heavily politicized Hugo and Nebula Awards, their books don’t sell. But why don’t they sell? They’re award winners, aren’t they? The “critics” praise them, while simultaneously casting aspersions on the “primitive forebears” of their genres. All the “best people” approve and applaud them. So why are their sales weak?

     Now, now, let’s not always see the same hands!


     I think it was Robert Ringer who said that all commercial activity of any sort requires salesmanship, and therefore, that proficiency in salesmanship is the sine qua non of commercial success. The sale of fiction is not an exception; it merely appears to be one because of the “gatekeeper” phenomenon.

     In the simplest terms, a “gatekeeper” is one who stands between the vendor and the purchaser, and who has a deciding role in determining whether the vendor’s product will reach the purchaser. In the pre-Internet era, commercial publishing houses were gatekeepers for fiction: unless the writer was willing to go to a subsidy house, he had no way to present his books to potential purchasers without the willing collaboration of a publishing house. As the publication of hard-copy fiction is a chancy business, there were never many publishing houses, and therefore not a lot of books were published each year.

     It’s possible to feel a certain sympathy for the editorial staffs of publishing houses – I call them, collectively, Pub World – while nevertheless feeling frustrated by their narrowness of vision and angered by their “progressive” impositions upon writers. Pub World editors appear to labor under the delusion that only left-wing obsessives purchase fiction, and therefore, that only fiction that expresses left-wing political sentiments should pass their scrutiny. Indeed, some writers who’ve succeeded in winning the acceptance of Pub World have subsequently lost their publishers’ favor by introducing a conservative motif in an otherwise politically indifferent story; consider Nick Cole’s travails in this regard as an archetype.

     Are there exceptions? Well, there’s Baen Books. I’ve been straining to think of another. I can’t come up with one.

     I must emphasize this strongly: A gatekeeper is not a censor. A censor has the power of the State at his back; the State’s armed agents will enforce his decisions about who may and who may not publish. However, a gatekeeper can accomplish much the same end as a censor...unless a route around him can be contrived.

     What the gatekeeper cannot do is compel readers to purchase the works the gatekeeper has offered them.


     The independent writers’ community – indies, for short – has experienced explosive growth these past few years. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and other electronic distribution outlets are ever more heavily populated by fiction that Pub World will not offer us. Granted that the overwhelming majority of indie novels and stories are pretty poor...in many cases, multidimensionally poor. Traditionally, Pub World’s gatekeepers prevented poorly conceived, poorly written, and poorly edited or proofread books from being offered for sale, though in these latter years that guarantee has expired. With indie fiction, there is no guarantee; the purchaser is on his own.

     With so many indies importuning the public, and with so much poorly conceived, poorly written, and poorly edited or proofread garbage among their offerings, “big successes” among them will be uncommon. However, the indies have some advantages over Pub World:

  • Low price;
  • Diversity of viewpoint;
  • The willingness to experiment.

     These don’t completely offset Pub World’s advantages of “the mark of quality” and its intimate relations with traditional retail outlets. However, as brick-and-mortar book retailing shrinks and ever more readers turn to eBooks, indies’ edges have helped them collectively to eclipse Pub World in aggregate sales.

     In short, indies are practicing better salesmanship than Pub World. They’re offering more readers something close to what those readers seek to purchase – again, collectively. And it’s sending Pub World and its favored writers into the Slough of Despond.


     Needless to say, I “have a dog in this fight,” being an indie writer myself. However, for analytical purposes I’ve tried to view the field disinterestedly. In doing so, what’s come to mind is the old marketers’ mantra:

Differentiate the product!

     Should Pub World’s offerings become even more homogenized, they would appeal to a more narrowly defined taste, and therefore to an ever narrower slice of the reading public. Readers hungry for something different would peel away from that pack. Indeed, this trend is already in progress. The indies are the beneficiaries.

     With apologies to Ayn Rand, the comparison to soap sales is inexact. Soap is more of a necessity than fiction, at least here in the United States. However, prosperity and a taste for novelty have had their effects on soap marketing just as they have on fiction. Note the explosive variegation in soaps, particularly shower soaps, these past two or three decades. It’s possible that the “old names,” such as Ivory and Dove, still outsell any particular varietal...but the varietals, collectively, outsell the “old names” by a considerable margin.

     From here, it would be all too easy to slip into a discussion of wine and the explosive recent expansion of New York’s wine industry, but the sun’s not yet over the yardarm here on eastern Long Island. Besides, I have a novel to finish.

1 comment:

  1. There is another publishing house -- Castalia House. Check them out.

    ReplyDelete

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