The Puppy Axis Returns: Part 3 Apparently

In what is rapidly turning into a meandering multi-part discussion of the Fireside report and the reaction of assorted Puppies to it.

Part 1, and Part 2, …

In between my last post on the topic and working on the response to Larry Correia’s Puppysplaining, I popped over to Mad Genius Club to see if anybody there had anything to say.

As it happens Cedar Sanderson has an interesting post on sexism in publishing which touches on some similar issues and then overtly links to Larry Correia’s post. I’m not saying Cedar’s post doesn’t make some of the same errors as Larry’s or Brad’s but it is infinitely less annoying because she doesn’t adopt that I’m-going-to-tell-you-all-what-to-think style of Larry and Brad.

There are two elements I want to pick out because I think they are interesting:

  • Firstly, she suggests (and I’ll assume for the sake of argument that she is correct) that many agents and editors in publishing are women. Cedar asks “Can women be biased against women? Why not?”
  • Secondly, she echoes a sentiment that we will see from Larry – that indie and self-publishing cuts out the gatekeepers and hence problem solved.

Cedar wonders if the first issue is explained by reverse sexism but let’s apply Ockham’s razor again: sexism is probably best explained by sexism and racism is probably best explained by racism. The conceptual problem that we keep seeing from Puppy quarters is that those two terms tend to be interpreted in only one way i.e. sexism is seen as something a sexist does and a sexist has to be some sort of overt misogynist, while racism is seen as something a racist does and a racist has to be some sort of cartoonish KKK supporter.

In reality, neither is the case. Both sexism and racism are perpetuated by nice people, who try to be good and may even hold quite progressive views. And for exhibit A we have good old Brad Torgersen – a man who I am sure doesn’t regard himself as a racist.

See, here’s the thing. The market always wins. Always. Doesn’t matter how brave or bold your posturing may be. If your book, or your movie, or your album, doesn’t have enough “there” there, you can hang a million virtue-signals on the thing — dress it up like a damned social justice christmas tree — and the audience is going to give you a big, whopping, “Meh.” And it’s not because the audience is secretly homophobic or misogynistic or racist. It’s because the audience is tired of being sermonized, and cannot be commanded to vote (with its collective wallet) for something it doesn’t want to vote for.

Now there is nothing semantically racist or sexist in anything he said there. Yet it pretty much explains Cedar’s question of how there can be so much apparent sexism when women are at least at one stage of the gatekeeping. Brad hits the thumb squarely on the head while aiming for the nail. Most industries are risk averse and publishing and entertainment are no different – one reason why there are so many sequels at your movie theatre. The pressure on employees in an industry is also to be risk averse. As nobody knows what the magic ingredients to popularity are (or they keep changing or both) that means superficial or cosmetic qualities are often (and unconsciously) used as proxies. That makes this ‘market wins’ attitude both dulling (i.e. we keep getting crappy tired movies following the same nutty-nugget formula) but also RESISTANT TO SOCIAL CHANGE. Note, when I say resistant to social change, I don’t mean resistant to changes that will happen in the future but resistant to changes that have already happened or are happening.

The market simply doesn’t know best because of a classic failing condition for markets: poor information. Gatekeepers relying on sticking with worked in the past and also factoring in the prejudices they believe their audience have. The latter is particularly pernicious and includes examples as the pinkification and gender segmentation of toys.

So yes, publishing can be institutionally sexist even if the industry employs a lot of women and it can be institutionally racist even if it employs lots of people who would be horrified to be thought of as racist. There is a word for it: bias. Bias doesn’t need to be conscious or deliberate but it is something that requires a conscious effort to fix.

Cedar’s second point is fine as far as it goes. Self-publishing/indie publishing can remove one set of gatekeepers. However, the idea that the problem is therefore solved is laughable. Sure self-publishing means even my imaginary self-deluded cat can publish a book but nobody at Mad Genius would suggest for a second that simply getting it published is the only obstacle.

Writing in the first place is an obstacle. Imagining that a writer is something you can be is an obstacle (again look at the many good articles at Mad Genius on this). However, getting read by people is also an obstacle. Promotion is an obstacle and getting noticed is an obstacle. The gatekeepers in these areas don’t have the kind of quasi-monopolistic power that editors at a big publisher do but they exist nonetheless. Don’t believe me? Then just think about how much the people at Mad Genius have wailed and railed and complained about Worldcon voters over the past couple of years – and Worldcon voters are just a tiny section of fandom with limited power and no single set of opinions.

Yes, the monopolies of big publishing are not what they were but that is only a fraction of the story. Indie and self-publishing solve some problems but it amounts to swapping some hard barriers to many more softer (and more porous) barriers with the same issues.

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9 comments

  1. Mark

    I find Cedar’s conclusion that self-pub is the solution a little suspect because she always concludes that self-pub is the solution.
    It’s an interesting point though, as self-pub is effectively adding an extra competitor to the market, and if it is more successful at something then the rest of the market will try to follow.
    (Despite being a bit wearied by the constant harping on self-pub being the solution to all ills I do actually think it’s an immensely valuable addition to the publishing landscape, giving authors a viable “walk away” option when negotiating with publishers and therefore giving them more negotiation power)
    As you say, she ignores that the same issues are still there in the wider self-pub market, just distributed differently. She gives quite an interesting example of Amanda Green writing MilSF under a male-sounding pseud, but doesn’t quite make it as far as discussing why Amanda felt she needed to switch identities for success in that subgenre.

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    • Cora

      In theory, self-publishing as a way for writers apart from whatever constitutes the mainstream in the US to circumvent unsympathetic gatekeepers is a lovely idea. And at the beginning of the self-publishing boom, this was the motivation for many writers, namely that they could tell whatever stories they wanted to tell without having to persuade a publisher that there was a market for what they were writing. So initially, you saw a lot of works that didn’t quite fit what publishers in the US/UK thought they could sell, including works intended to appeal to the US rightwing such as a lot of Baen style military SF/space opera or the whole subgenre of prepper fiction (basically post-apocalyptic fiction, where the right people survive due to having enough guns, ammo and dried beans), but also a lot of other offbeat works, including many by marginalized writers.

      But after a few years and the first big successes, a lot of self-publishers abandoned their quirkier early work and started chasing trends and writing to market, the market being whatever Amazon customers and Kindle Unlimited subscribers want. And since Amazon customers are disproportionately concentrated in rural parts of the US, where physical bookstores are scarce, the various Kindle subgenre bestseller lists increasingly started reflecting the tastes of that demographic, whereas e.g. a space opera featuring a black lesbian space pirate gets buried among the Baen clones. Which is good for puppies and mad geniuses, because Amazon’s US core demographic is often the same readership they’re serving.

      However, we’re also increasingly seeing self-publishers tailor their books to what the believe the “market” (which is really just one market) wants, making female space captains male, downplaying the sexual orientation of LGBT characters or cutting it out altogether, carefully avoiding saying anything political that might upset an overwhelmingly conservative readership. And yes, these are all real examples.

      That said, I still believe that self-publishing can be a great option for writers apart from the mainstream. And African-American fiction had a strong self-publishing tradition even long before the Kindle was a gleam in Jeff Bezos’ eye. But it’s not all quite as rosy as the mad geniuses paint the situation.

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  2. Pingback: The Puppy Axis Returns: Cut to the Chase Already | Camestros Felapton
  3. Cora

    Thanks. It took me a while to figure this out myself, especially since the German Amazon customer base is completely different. Over here, Amazon early adopters were often academics and people who prefer to read English language books, because even today, small German towns usually still have a bookstore or two, but foreign language books were prohibitively expensive pre-Amazon due to distributor price hikes and academic books from university presses very difficult to get at all. As a result, Amazon’s German customer base is quite different, which they don’t quite seem to get.

    Regarding self-publishers, another issue is that many self-publishers are exclusive with Amazon, because Amazon offers certain perks to people who are exclusive with them. As a result, these self-publishers cut themselves off from other e-book vendors like B&N, Kobo, iTunes, Smashwords, etc…, which reach different demographics, e.g. Kobo’s and Apple’s customer base is a lot more international.

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  4. Tasha Turner

    The problem Cedar ignores is regular people have similar biases to gatekeepers. You solve some problems by self-publishing but there are people who won’t buy a book because it’s written by a woman (why Amanda wrote the MilSF under a male pseudonym) or by a black or another PoC or an LGBTQ author.

    Plus what you said about discovery, what Cora said, an over reliance on Amazon, and ebook only sales ignoring audiobooks and print.

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    • camestrosfelapton

      Indeed. Take MGC itself – it is a support network of advice and cross promotion (which is a good thing). Even though Sarah Hoyt and Dave Freer have had some trad publishing sucess via Baen, the networking is important because there are plenty of obstacles and pitfalls. Building these networks isn’t trivial but they also have the danger of becoming a network island disconnected from others. Doubly so if you are part of a section of society often marginalised.

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    • Cora

      Regarding audience biases, Amazon’s algorithms, which reward a lot of sales right out of the gate, also tend to push up the same old, same old cookie-cutter stuff, while slow burn books don’t get the same algorithm boost. This is why things like Larry Correia’s bookbombs work.

      Underserved niche audiences can be profitable (the only time I ever got the coveted Amazon algorithm boost was with a sweet lesbian Christmas romance), but first they have to find you.

      Audiobooks and even print are also more difficult to do for indies. Yes, there is Print on Demand, but the formatting takes time and the resulting books are more expensive and need to be special-ordered (and many POD books are only available via Amazon, since the authors use Amazon’s POD arm Createspace). For Audiobooks there’s ACX, but it’s only open to US authors.

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