Recipe for pundit response to Hugh Howey’s suggestions

Recently, Hugh Howey wrote two interesting blog posts that outline what changes he would enact if he became the benevolent dictator of a large publishing company.

Don’t Anyone Put Me in Charge

I recently posted an audacious claim that major publishers are bound to emulate indies, which would be quite the reversal. I want to now explore how publishers could actually do this, how they could learn from self-published authors. Because I want publishers to do well. I want them to help new authors break out. I want them to keep bookstores open and readers happy. So what I’m going to do, in a very rambling fashion, is pretend that someone just put me in charge of a major publishing house. Let’s say HarperCollins (just to pick one at random). Here’s how I would blow the doors off my competitors and become the #1 publisher in the land (overtaking indies, which I estimate now rank #1 in total sales).

The post is full of suggestions on community, formats, bundling, contracts, schedules, marketing and locations that publishers really should take to heart. The slightly embarrassing part, though, is how many of them are common sense observations that should have been implemented years ago.

My Second Month on the Hypothetical Job

But now we’re in the second month, and we’ve got the easy changes behind us: DRM is a thing of the past; hardback sales have shot up with the ebook bundling; our authors are using the forums and coming up with great ideas (that we actually listen to and implement). Things are great. But they could be better. Now that we’re #1 and have some leverage, we’re gonna drop the bunker busters.

The second post then tackles returns, print on demand, free books, more marketing, branding, and authors. All of which is good.

So, here we have a couple of excellent, well reasoned posts on what needs to be done in the publishing industry. The best part is that we can already guess how the responses will go. The incumbent response to common sense suggestions is a genre of blog posts that really doesn’t get the credit it deserves, considering how incredibly widespread it is. So, to make the task easier for all of you pundits and publishing industry insiders, instead of picking the posts apart or responding to them (I mostly agree with them anyway) I’m going to give you an easy recipe for how to write a standard pro-industry response to blog posts like Hugh Howey’s.

Recipe for generic publishing industry insider response to articles demanding change

  1. Call common sense, toned-down blog posts ‘controversial’ or ‘provocative’. Especially if everybody with sense agrees with it and has expressed public support for its ideas.
  2. Pretend that things have already started to change so much that some of the suggestions are redundant, then mention how the issues mentioned aren’t that big a problem anyway and, actually, the way publishers have been doing it in the past is much better that what is suggested.
  3. Pick an inconsequential detail and deny it. Make sure it’s something that has no bearing on the overall argument but serves to subtly discredit the blogger without attacking them directly.
  4. Respond to a suggestion, making sure to waffle on by bringing in random observations as if they were counter-arguments. Pick one of the points made and write around it without addressing it directly. Try not to attack the suggestion head on but draw in non sequiturs and pretend they are relevant arguments. (‘But if that were true about book retail, all cats would be Sagittarians, wouldn’t they? Also, university professors. I mean, university professors!’)
  5. Act as if the suggestions aren’t based on independently verifiable critical observations by a third party on the publishing industry in general, and instead act as if they are wholly subjective opinions based on a single blogger’s personal experience and therefor not generally applicable.
  6. Make up a huge, big issue that isn’t in the post at all and then take the blogger to task for being for or against it (make it look like it was the post’s main topic even though it wasn’t mentioned at all) or lambast them for not going into such an obviously vital and important issue (derail it, baby!).
  7. Finish off by pretending you’ve just explained why the status quo is inevitable and also why that is the absolute best way that things can ever be and that any change is bad. So, so bad. And difficult to accomplish.
  8. Bonus points if you do any of the following:
    1. Imply that self-publishing is a bubble.
    2. Trot out the ‘ebook growth is stalling’ idea.
    3. Tell a story about somebody doing something stupid and then pretend that’s a strong counter-argument to whatever you want to argue against. Because stupid people are always relevant.
    4. Imply, or even outright claim, that self-published books are of a substantially lower quality than than the trite, homogenous, celebrity-obsessed output of other-publishing (as opposed to self-publishing). (‘Not a celebrity? Fine! We also love has-been and burned out celebrities. Niche markets! Loadsa money in them.’)
    5. Hint at every opportunity that this or that reform is expensive and requires a lot of work. Gotta make sure they know they should be hiring consultants!
    6. Hint at every opportunity that this is a complex problem that needs to be properly understood… by sending your staff to workshops, conferences, etc..
    7. Imply that other-publishers are somehow responsible for keeping the general quality of books high.

Just follow this recipe and you’ll have a kick-ass post that guarantees you a few more rides on the publishing industry consultancy gravy train. After all, would publishers give shit-loads of money to people who tell them that their stupid mistakes are stupid? Would they hire consultants who unnerve them with ideas and suggestions that require actual cultural change to implement?

Of course not. Publishers only give money to people like that by accident, like when their books turn out to be bestsellers.

Blogging has trained me to assume you’re stupid

(This is the fourth Stumbling into Publishing post.)

One of my biggest regrets with the Knights & Necromancers series is how generic it sounds.

Not just the title—if it were just the title I could have fixed that by changing it.

No, the problem is that the stories seem impossible to summarise without sounding like generic cookie-cutter sword and sorcery fiction because that was the foundation I built on. I’d like to think I made something more of it but that ‘something’ is a thing too vague to boil down and market.

After trying, again and again to summarise the series, I’m forced to come to the conclusion that the premise probably is, a little bit at the very least, a little bit uninspired.

While I can pick out individual elements that definitely aren’t generic, the whole they compose looks and feels rather generic.

Which makes sense, since I felt rather uninspired writing them. My internal censor was in full force throughout. Whenever my mind got sucked towards something weird, I dialled back towards the more normal. Whenever I got fascinated by something I found interesting but was definitely off-beat for a fantasy story, I either skipped writing it or edited it out after the fact.

Most of what I normally write I write for myself. Both fiction and non-fiction, most of it simply goes into a folder in my Dropbox, only revisited if I need to reconnect with the ideas, emotions, or reasoning I was trying to preserve. A lot of it is perpetually half-finished. Which is okay. A lot of it gets deleted once I begin to find it stupid. Which is also okay.

It’s just that one thing I learned while blogging is that you people hate the non-fiction pieces I enjoyed writing and love the ones I hated. (‘You’ in this context being the generic aggregate bio-matter of the people who visit this site.) So, paradoxically enough, if I really like something I write, chances are I will never blog it.

Seriously, the difference in the traffic the two get is usually just about an order of magnitude. (I.e. over 10x, a real order of magnitude.)

The most popular posts in my blog ‘career’? Either posts that are magnets for email-happy lunatics (i.e. facile posts that nonetheless manage to be ‘controversial’ in some way), boring pieces that outline the blatantly obvious in as simple terms as possible, or lightweight pre-digested fair (like listicles or ‘this versus that’ fight posts).

What blogging has trained me to do for public writing is to remove all subtlety, abandon any structure that requires people to read from start to end (seriously, if you lay out a problem at the start of a post and follow it with suggestions for fixing, people will call you an arsehole because they only read the start and not the suggestions), tone it down (morons will ignore logic if you call an idiot an idiot), explain everything (even the stupid super-obvious stuff that shouldn’t need explanation), and generally assume that the readers are more boring and less imaginative than a senile middle manager three days from retirement in a large bureaucratic organisation that would make the offices from Gilliam’s Brazil look like Brazil’s Semco.

Because if you—my generic aggregate blog reader bio-matter—aren’t a fucking idiot then as a collective you do a bloody fucking good impression of one.

(And a lot of you are nutters too, judging by some of the emails and comments I’ve gotten in the past. Long emails. Long long crazy crazy emails.)

Once you get sucked into the trap of thinking that your writing can be of use, the temptation to adjust the writing to be more ‘effective’ gets pretty strong. The problem is that ‘effective’ blog writing—the writing that blog readers actually read and act upon—tends to be drivel because those same readers ignore most things more substantial.

Without blogging, I would probably be unemployed today. Which is a fact that weighs heavily on my mind whenever I consider giving it up completely to preserve my sanity.

The trouble with fiction is that, in storytelling, the writer’s emotions are at least partially infectious. If I am not fully emotionally invested in the story, that comes across. It might not be something you can pinpoint and it might not even be readily apparent, but that lack—that hollowness—is there no matter how well you write.

But, you, my reader, have trained me well. My experience with blogging has trained me to tone everything down, because the web is full of touchy fucks. It has trained me to simplify everything, because otherwise you’ll misunderstand it. It has trained me to chunk everything, because otherwise you’ll ignore it. It has trained me to make everything facile, because anything with nuance will be grossly misrepresented by you. All of these lessons work well to drive up blog traffic and kill productive discussion in favour of meaningless yay or nay prattle, but they absolutely destroy fiction. All you get is faceless people tackling vague problems in a generic place.

Moreover, blogging has trained me not to publish because I am not a robot and I have to write about what I have to write. I write what I like in the ways I like and then I close the file unpublished. Because publishing it would be pointless at best and a magnet for trouble at worst.

Blog readers are the worst kind of reader in the world. They arrive eager to misunderstand and ready to be angry with you.

Fiction readers arrive generous with their time but expect a world rich and complex enough to inhabit and a cast of characters who seem real and recognisable without being too familiar.

They are two audiences in diametric opposition. Any lesson learned for dealing with one, must be unlearned for the other. Not realising this sooner was, obviously, a major mistake on my part.

(Not saying fiction readers are saints. A lot of them are dumb fucks with an axe to grind. But, compared to your average blog reader, they might as well be old J.C. himself returned to save us all from our sins.)

Afterwards, before I actually published them, I tried to reconnect with the stories, trying to find facets in them that I could emotionally invest in but without ‘weirding’ them up too much. I hoped to make the characters feel as real to you as they do to me. I don’t know if it worked.

What I do know is that if I had just followed my writing interests, followed the lines and threads that captured my attention, I would have enjoyed the writing process much more.

It probably wouldn’t have sold any better but I doubt anybody would have felt that it was generic.