The finity of pie

This was inspired by some one of current sf establishment wondering if sf had run out of space…was exhausted.

One of the logical fallacies underlying publishing and its uncomfortable relationship with authors is ‘the pie is only so big. You can’t have any more.’

Not only does this start with the ‘we’ve decided who gets pie’ – which might be fine if they could say they got it right (and I say this as someone who probably has had them get it wrong… in my favor.), but it also has the sad effect of making authors — at least some of them, squabble among themselves about who gets pie at all, and how a big slice.

Also it is of course, crap. There is – at the moment anyway, a finite number of readers. That pool is only a tiny fragment of the pool of those who can read. And that pool is a fraction of the pool potential readers. Take Harry Porry… er Potter – even after movies and the vast publicity spend… 450 million sales in total, call it 65 million people per book. World population – 6.9 billion-ish. And lets be taking 4 readers per copy average (which is an overestimate as some people will have bought PB and HC – and not lent it out all) and that cancels out the library readers. But let’s be generous… 96 percent of humans have not read the bestselling book. Yes,the poor, the illiterate, the stupid, the people who don’t read kids books, etc. But single bestselling book reached about – let’s call it for ease of calculation at least 200 million readers, worldwide. That’s a call on the minimum size of the pool of readers (at least of a MG fantasy). Even if you assume that only 1/4 of those were English language sales, that’s 50 million… Which does make a bit of a joke of print runs of 5K. That’s oh… 0.01% coverage. Or 99.99 % unreachable. Or put another way, there is one book possibly available to every 10 000 proven readers. If you book happens be MG fantasy (and probably has a sell-through of 50%)… you got 1:20 000 chances to make that connection. That’s without getting to the ‘hard to mine’ reserves which are so vast that to the average writer, they may as well be infinite.

The issue of course is that we’re still massively inefficient at putting readers together with the writers that they’ll like. My own version of future prediction is that this will get steadily better, and sales numbers will drop for runaway bestsellers and rise for everyone else. We’re just too different to all love the same books. I can read HP, but I would barely cross the road to pick up a copy. I’d cross half a continent to pick up a new Pratchett. For others, this will be different again. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll start to mine those vast reserves locked away in other languages and illiteracy. I draw the line at stupidity. Hopefully I can leave appealing to stupid to others, and there is a line below which stupid is just too darn dumb to read. But maybe we can fix that one day too. Insert Bambolweeni microbrains or something.

It’s an argument, IMO, that translates well into almost everything else, and possibly better. I read ‘Peak’ this and at the rate we consume we’ll need another 2 earths etc… And think ‘just run this past me slowly again’? Take oil. “We’re at peak oil.”… Well no. We’re not. We may possibly be at peak easily recoverable by present methods cheap fossil (possibly-we don’t really know) known reserves of oil. But we’re a long way from out of the muck. And even if we were… We can produce it in the lab, we can get it out of microbes and algae. And that’s with what we know now. In 300 years time they may look at us like we do at spermaceti candles, and ask just why we bothered.

And that’s without getting adventurous and fetching it from the hydrocarbon lakes on Titan.

I can see the relays clicking over in your heads. “That’s rich coming from you! You’re an arch-conservationist. You even recycle toilet paper.”

That’s actually moderately inaccurate, and I barely ever have toilet paper on the washing line. I choose to live a life with a high level of self-sufficiency. Part of that is desire, part of it necessity (I still derive most of my income from commercial publishing, and don’t sell enough copies of Bolg
to tell them to depart for places unknown), and part of it genetics, and part of is nurture. I’ve never seen the need to be prodigal with anything, and excessive consumption — especially conspicuous consumption — for the sake of consumption always struck me as being being so mind-blowingly stupid and wasteful that I don’t need to go there. Yes. I know. That makes 95% of the human race stupid and wasteful, and the other 5% just have no chance to be. There are degrees in this, and I do it too. Moderation in all things, including the recycling of toilet paper – we consume, we want better and more, and we imitate. And yes, I do rate most of the so called upper echelon of society, our socialites, celebrities, business leaders and politicians as a bit dumb and rather inadequate because they need to do this. We haven’t really to evolved better new ways establish status in the super-tribes. Back in the natural size group of humans – pretty small, probably maxing out at around our ‘personal ID’ point of knowing individuals (IIRC that’s something like 120?) you knew who the good, the brave, the kind, the ones who fathered kids and never provided dinner for them, The ones who were funny, the ones whose cave-wall graffiti was really hilarious, the ones who always got meat, were. And that told us who we wanted follow, sleep with, and avoid were. Now, especially in huge aggregations of people we rely on the signs of these things, sometimes even to tell ourselves we’re the coolest etc. because we can buy a new Gucci wig, or at least that we’re not losers because we too have a new Gucci wig. Labels obsession is in my opinion the lowest form of this pack following. It’s the same root as the uniform and groupthink come from, and it’s not really for me. I like to think for myself and judge things and people on their merit, not their glitzy shoes. That is harder, but really it’s worth more their shoes.

I am a writer and naturally I see translate into my industry too. Harry Potter was at least in part merely a uniform. Yes, it wasn’t no fun to wear, had appealing characters, used themes (boarding school adventures/ magic) to things which have wide appeal especially to teens (unlike her latest offering which has, I gather a lot in common with a bowl of cold sick in the appeal stakes, but is very PC and very litterwherewee). But what we saw was – at least in part – driven by a desire to be ‘in’. Younger people (and a fair number of the less-than-young) are very uncertain about status and like to be the same as the everyone else (even if they’d rather read Star Wars or Diana Wynne Jones or 50 Spades of Grey) Still, I’m not knocking it, it got a lot of kids to read who thought it uncool before. But the point is while it got a lot of kids to read, it wasn’t the perfect match in all those cases. If it was, those kids would translate into a huge book-a-week pie of total book addicts. And those are just the smallest possible piece of the whole pie.

So there is my philosophy -part of what I try to slip into my books. It’s bigger than you can possibly use. And if you can use it to the point it’s noticeable… there is always something else.

We live in universe of infinite possibilities. All that’s holding us back is ourselves… and sometimes a bit of group-think. As writers we want to help each other up, not worry that others will take our place or that we’ve got to fit in.

Exhausted. ha. There is always more.
(cross posted on Mad Genius Club)

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The finity of pie

  1. Pingback: The Finity of Pie | madgeniusclub

  2. Ian Clark

    Hi Dave,
    I think you should be kinder to Rowlings. She is a prisoner of her own success.
    Its obvious she can write teen fiction. If her next book had been teen fiction and not Potter, she’d have been hung from the nearest lamppost.

    So she went a different way. Don’t forget, she’s richer than the Queen of England. Like Bill Gates, she has to listen to no one. Like Bill Gates, whatever she does is going to have critics everywhere screaming “Penguin”. {Tux is the Linux icon, a penguin, for those who didn’t know.}

    Regards

    Ian

    • She plans to write a children’s fiction book next. Why do I need to be kinder to her? She doesn’t have to listen to me. She hit a writing hula hoop/ dingbat / yo – yo / frisbee – a fad, and she was like most fads, entertaining enough. I suspect she thought that she’d get literary and political kudos, and large sales from her next effort. Shrug. Maybe she just wanted to do it.

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