March 16th, 2012


Fragmenting Families

This article points out trends in marriage as increasingly an activity of well-to-do people, not poor people.

I am disgusted with America's headlong plummet into fragmentation.  While politicians are shredding the social safety net as fast as they can, the family safety net is also dissolving.  The problem is, nobody stays healthy and rich all the time. People get injured and sick.  They have babies who need care.  The fewer people are tightly connected, the less fault tolerance there is when something goes wrong, the less opportunity there is for someone else to take up the slack for a little while to make it possible to get back on one's feet.  When people spread out, they also require far more in the way of resources than when they share, which is more wasteful and more expensive.  Nor is it good for subtler quality-of-life aspects such as happiness and continuity.

You know how, before the invention of armies, battles were just a bunch of one-on-one fights?  We're heading for a point where we don't have a society anymore, just a mass of individuals who don't give a flip if the person next to them dies. I'm unpleasantly reminded of Eloi.

In Which Texas Abuses Women

... with forced ultrasounds and forced information.  And while we're on that topic, the article also shows how Texas abuses health care providers by forcing them to do harm to some of their patients, when "first, do no harm" is supposed to be the primary groundrule of the whole profession.

This isn't harm that happens and then goes away.  Rape can do permanent damage.  Other psychological violations can do permanent damage.  Consider the cost of depression, antidepressants, counseling.  Consider the cost of women for whom that's the last straw and they cease to be functioning members of society; cease to hold a job (if they can even find one) and pay taxes, begin to soak up tax money through public aid.  Consider the cost to families of having someone -- a daughter, a wife, a mother -- who is shattered by this experience.  Who maybe has flashbacks when the topic of sex comes up, or the topic of children comes up, or who can't bear watching television anymore because politicians refuse to stop talking about what they're going to take away from women next, or who avoids the health care industry as too traumatic even when in need of positive care.  A slow creep of damage radiating outward like a spreading stain.  And there's not even any legal recourse for it, because it was legally mandated.

Now, when society allows, encourages, or commands human beings to harm each other, some bad things tend to happen.  First there's the damage to the victims themselves.  But there's also a negative effect on the perpetrators.  They tend to either break from sharing the suffering of the victims, or become indifferent to that suffering.  The latter inclines them to harm more people than the "acceptable" victims.  Consider, for example, the much higher rates of rape, child abuse, spousal abuse, etc. in the military.  Consider also how awkward it is when soldiers snap and shoot up their own base or a bunch of civilians.  A fluke?  No.  It's an obvious, predictable effect of removing people's ordinary ethics and training them to dehumanize others and use violence to solve problems.  If you're very careful about keeping soldiers sane and healthy, such incidents can be kept to a minimum, but they always happen; and if you run people ragged, they happen a lot more often and are worse.

Such things may seem to be unconnected but they all stem from a common cause.  When a society does not value its members and does not teach them to respect and care for each other, they tend to lose the qualities that make for healthy individuals and healthy societies.  This destroys the bonds that hold people together in smaller or larger groups. Eventually, you don't have a society anymore; you have anarchy, maybe contained in a leaking tub of what used to be a nation.  Don't believe it can happen?  There are not only plenty of historic examples, look at some places in Africa.  Central Europe, the Middle East, and South America have done it repeatedly too.  The results are ghastly.

So it's generally a bad idea to harm other people.  Anyone who advocates activities that harm other people -- aside from exceptional circumstances like self-defense -- is contributing to the problem and not somebody who should be in charge of anything, let alone a government.

Recipe: "Sweet Greek Lamb Chops"

Yesterday we went to Sam's Club where they had packages of very nice lamb chops.  We bought some.  I cooked the first batch tonight for supper.  We were sufficiently pleased that we plan to buy more.  While not cheap at a per-pound rate, it does break down to an affordable per-serving rate at 2 chops per person.  Last year one of the farmer's market vendors sold lamb and goat meat; we shall have to watch for them again too.

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The Business Rusch: Scarcity and Abundance

Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes a terrific series about publishing and writing. It's very useful, although the traditional perspective means it isn't always completely accurate. That's okay; it's hard to analyze a system that's melting down and reforming. Read widely. And tip the writer if you like her work: she has a donation link.

Current article is "Scarcity and Abundance." It's mostly a very good analysis of the scarcity model, such as publishing uses, and the abundance model, such as much of the internet uses.

Now I'm going to discuss some of the things that are right and wrong about this, and what can be done with them.

Amazon had unlimited shelf space—the abundance model, to use Kyncl’s term. If a book existed, that book was probably available on Amazon. Only readers weren’t used to buying over the internet, so they preferred brick-and-mortar stores.

Amazon's increasing wank means they are no longer the one-stop-shop they used to be. They won't carry some books; some authors and publishers won't deal with them. Same with other online venues; they don't carry everything. Brick-and-mortar stores won't carry, or will order only grudgingly, anything outside the conventional model: that makes it hard to get the small press, POD, self-published, crowdfunded, and other stuff that is becoming a rapidly larger share of the marketplace.

This is a problem because when you don't make your customers happy, they're likely to take their custom somewhere else. You're not just competing with, say, the 50,000 books in the bookstore most of which came out from major publishers in the last month or two. You are competing with all the books currently available online plus all the free reading material on the web. So unless you have something the customer REALLY wants or absolutely NEEDS -- a bestselling author's latest book, the only worthwhile reference on a topic, a required textbook, etc. -- chances are they'll walk away. They can find something else to read, something else to buy.

This also means you have to make it EASY for people to give you money. Not just possible but EASY. You have to be hooked in with a payment system they already use or can figure out in the five seconds or so they're thinking about whether to give you money. If you're using an optional payment model and it's clunky, your take will be lower. If you're using a required payment model, like a bookstore, and it's clunky ... people may not just leave, they may go download your product for free somewhere because that's easier. There are cartoons about this, mostly aimed at DVDs, but it applies to literature too. Make it easy to do the right thing and hard to do the wrong thing. You can gripe all you want about how "downloading things for free is evil" but that won't stop people from doing it if they feel it's to their advantage. The right thing has to be more attractive.

Over the years, traditional publishers had developed an arcane system of selling books. From returns (producing two books to sell one) to the distribution network (not selling directly to bookstores, but selling directly to distributors instead) had created a lot of unnecessary costs.

This is true. It also means that there is a lot of fat to be trimmed. If you sell direct to your readers, you have to pay all the expenses but you also get to keep all the money. That can make a huge difference, both for publishers and for authors.

By the middle of the previous decade, it cost at least $250,000 to publish a mid-list novel with a nice cover and an author advance of $10,000.

Consider that advances are plummeting. Cost of living is rising rapidly and the job market is crappy. Note that the poverty threshold is about $22,300 for a family of four or $11,100 for one person. Minimum wage doesn't even pay enough to afford rent in most places. As publishers drop advances and services, that makes traditional publishing less attractive to authors, who now have other options. Remember "1000 True Fans" ...? That's 1000 fans at $100/year to generate a $100,000 income. A $10,000 advance would equal only a tenth of that support base, much easier to attain.

Whenever a network like ABC rose to the top for years on end, it was because an executive had a golden gut. That person could make decisions that millions of people agreed with.

That skill is rare and doesn’t always last, particularly when the executive or the publisher gets too wrapped up in the hothouse environment of the studio or the publishing company.

This is true but incomplete. It's true that most people don't enjoy reading slush, even if they know what they personally want to find and read. It's true that the conventional market is scrambling. But I think there is room for a new wave of editors and reviewers to emerge as bird dogs: people who find, collate, and point out the stuff that is good from the stuff that is crap. That's a useful skill. It can get you followers. We just need to find ways of enabling it, and rewarding it.

While we're on the topic: taste may be subjective, but many aspects of quality are objective. Whether or not you can articulate it, good gut instincts usually include an ability to recognize good craftsmanship. Things like spelling, plot structure, precision in painting, color choice, musical rhythm, etc. really are important. It's just that some writers can do magical things like making Hitler a sympathetic character, and some artists can do magical things like making orange and green match in a painting, etc. A good bird dog will understand the fundamentals of the media, what they look like when they're done right, how they go clunk when done wrong, and then recognize magical exceptions when those occur. So study all the rules you can find. Judge which ones work and which don't. Then absorb what is useful. Do not just wave your hand and say "I know it when I see it." That is lazy and rarely accurate.

Everyone currently working in traditional publishing, from the publishers to the editors to the writers, learned the scarcity attitude. Everyone. That includes me. That includes any unpublished writer who tried to break in before 18 months ago. That includes agents. That includes book reviewers, copy editors, book editors, and the publishing executives.

Our attitudes got formed in a model based on limited shelf space and expensive production costs. On “gut” decisions instead of quantifiable decisions

This is WRONG. It is horrifically, dangerously wrong. If this were true, there would be only one way to do anything.

Just because something is the norm doesn't mean everyone learns it, agrees with it, or does it. That just means it's the dominant version and most people are going along with it in that place at that time. There are almost always other options even if they are rarely practiced. And that's exactly where change comes from, whether it's an ecosystem or an economy. An odd little quirk suddenly becomes much more advantageous and spreads rapidly.

This is exactly what's happening in publishing now. The people who did learn the old system, and only the old system, are freaking out because it's melting. The people who didn't learn it, or learned something else, or a combination thereof, are the ones currently exploring what can be done with all this amazing new stuff that ebooks and online businesses and crowdfunding are making possible. So the old system is floundering? Oh well, there are other systems, let's see what they can do.

I've been reading since I can remember, writing for almost 35 years, and making money from my writing for just under 25 years now. I've seen publishers, editors, and authors come and go. I've sold one book, hundreds of poems, hundreds of articles, and a few dozen stories through various conventional markets; plus two more books to a micropress. I've sold hundreds more poems direct to my readers, and that's actually my biggest success. I have no particular allegiance to a given culture, economy, business model, or subject area. I will write where my muse takes me and where the money is, aiming as best I can for the deepest confluence of the two. That has led to great shifts over time as I move according to what I can place and what will put beans on the table. I am not and never was bound to the mainstream publishing system; I just took advantage of it when our paths ran together.

And I'm not alone in this. I know lots of other writers who had some publications in the mainstream but also explored other avenues. Some of them have since found other avenues MUCH more effective and profitable. So that's what they are doing. They're adapting based on what works for them. Always looking for new opportunities.

You can either be adaptable, or you can have hysterics when the one system you've learned is suddenly in flux.

Each book becomes precious. Each book needs time to produce. Each book must be perfect, because its debut on the world stage is brief, and its ability to capture an audience limited.

Parts of this remain true both in scarcity and in abundance models. Books are precious, and should be well-made if they are to be worth having at all. Most crucially, books take time to produce. Everything does; that's an irreducible fact of goods and services.

What you're buying is not just a stack of printed pages or a file; it is a writer's time and skill, perhaps also a publisher's and an editor's and an artist's. The more work goes into producing a given book, the higher its return must be to make it worth doing and, especially, make those people willing and able to do more such work. If you care about other people and you can afford it, you pay them for their work. If you don't care and/or can't afford it, you pay them less or you steal it or you do without. Huge fights are being had over multiple versions of this argument currently. But it all boils down to: you get what you reward.

People who come at publishing from the new world of publishing—always-available titles, e-books that might stay in print forever—understand the long tail. They understand that something may not be a hit when it first appears, but word of mouth (or an abundance of page views) will lead to a wider audience. That wider audience will then bring its friends and family to the table, introducing yet another new group of people to the item.

This really ought to have been obvious to anyone who ever took a literature class. The author bios are full of references to people who died in poverty but were declared Great a century or two later. Some of us pointed it out early and often. It was just a matter of waiting until the technology matured enough to make the long tail feasible as a profit line.

One way that they’re reacting, for example, is attempting to limit writers. By making their writers sign non-compete clauses in contracts, traditional publishers are trying to recreate the scarcity model. Unfortunately, they can’t. They might make one particular writer’s work scarce, but they won’t make other work scarce.

This is a source of tremendous upheaval. Writers often resent being limited, especially when someone tries to limit their already scanty income from all the hard work they do. Previously, mainstream publishing was the only way to make really serious money, unless you had a ready audience for your self-published work (filk albums at conventions, how-to books at seminars, etc.). But now creative people have FAR more access to their audiences, who are often happy to spend money that goes directly to the creator. I've encountered some wonderful people in publishing, but I've also found a tremendous supply of absolute jerks across all roles (as a writer, editor, reviewer, etc. I've met some of each). If you have a captive audience, you may get away with being a jerk. But if people have alternatives, they will leave in droves. And they are. I don't think anybody is really thrilled with the way things are currently going.

Seriously keep an eye on your long tail. You don't want to give away rights to it. You don't want to give away rights that don't exist yet (yes, more and more contracts ask for that). You want to make sure the item will remain available to shoppers at least for a few years, and will not cost you money to keep it available (watch out for hidden fees). Protect your own interests, because if you don't, nobody else is likely to do it for you.

Conversely, however, the abundance model favors some other pretty awesome things such as generosity, cooperation, and community. A shopper who wouldn't spend $8 on a book "from some big company" might drop $25 into an author's tip jar. A writer who would have left their nifty worldbuilding notes in a drawer where nobody else could enjoy them may post some as perks for fans or donors. A writer and artist who couldn't afford to hire each other with cash may barter for each other's services. Fans of a creative person may make friends with each other, talk about common interests, and clue each other to similar works by different creators. The positive feedback cycle can do great things.

Now, though, with online bookstores and with e-readers, we can look and sample for free in abundance. No limits on the amount of books before us. We can use any kind of search paradigm we want to find books, whether we do it by genre or author or key word, publication date or positive reviews or page count, and then we can read a bit of the book before buying. We never have to leave that virtual bookstore empty-handed.

This is tremendously valuable -- but it will survive only so long as we fight for it. Publishers, booksellers, and money handlers have all variously tried to choke it to death. Remember Amazon refusing to carry some books, PayPal refusing to handle payments for erotica, etc. It is absolutely none of their business what people choose to create, enjoy, sell, or buy. They're just the conduits. We need to enforce that with the one thing they can't ignore: our money. Any choke attempt creates an opportunity for a non-choking competitor. Always keep your eye on this.

All those questions writers ask about how to get noticed in this new world? Those questions come from someone raised in scarcity. Being noticed was important because your moment on that shelf was—by definition—short-lived.

Writers who understand the long tail know that the way to get more readers is to have more available product. Abundance works, even for the single entrepreneur
Actually those questions come from both paradigms. It's just that there are now lots more options for getting noticed. Three things are crucial:

1) Understand the target audience for your work.

2) Know your own strengths and weaknesses.

3) Figure out a way to reach that target audience that capitalizes on your strengths while avoiding your weaknesses. If you write like lightning, a blog may get you lots of readers without undercutting your literature too much. If you write slowly, try a micro service like Twitter or Tumblr -- options popular with artists. A crafter good with words might write how-to posts; one bad at describing the process might put photos on Pinterest instead. And anyone can ask their audience to boost the signal.

Watch the resources as new ones become available. Look for hidden traps. Explore and experiment. Do more of what works; drop what doesn't work. Seek unexploited niches and meet unmet needs; that usually entices people to wave money at you.

The digital landscape is changing entertainment. Not what we consumers want from our entertainment, but how we find it and consume it.

We need to accept that these changes have happened. Trying to place a stranglehold on that abundance and return to the culture of scarcity won’t happen, no matter how hard we try. We all need to learn how to survive in a world of abundance

Absolutely true, and likely to remain so for some years.  A new paradigm will emerge but that takes time.  Think outside the box.  And when the old system doesn't work?  For the love of all good sense, quit trying to push it up the hill by hand.  Take the thing apart and see which of its components could be used build something else, and what you'll need to make new.