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Thursday, December 21, 2017

Talking Shop

Op-ed • “It’s Amazon’s world, we just rent space in it,” by Bruce Bethke •

I got a query from an old friend the other day. And by old, I mean old: this is someone I’ve known for more than forty years. After a long and successful career as a teacher and writer of non-fiction books he retired, and decided to try his hand at writing a novel. In the fullness of time he actually finished his novel, and then to compound the miracle, he found a publisher who liked it well enough to accept it for publication and pay him a modest advance. After another fullnessity of time, spent working through the development editing, copy editing, proofreading, dust-jacket marketing copy development, and all that stuff, his novel was at last released...

Whereupon it promptly sank without a ripple. Not even a nice satisfying ker-ploonk! as it hit the surface of the literary world and went under. Two weeks after the gala release party, it was as if his novel had never existed.

Prompting his query to me: here in the 21st century, how in the Hell do you get your book noticed?

The truth is, I don’t know. I’m a time traveler from the past as well. I began my career as a fiction writer about forty years ago, and am intimately familiar with the way the fiction publishing business used to work. But in the here and now? In 2017, very shortly to become 2018?

Beats me.

It used to be hard to get published. Now it’s easy to get published, but really hard to get anyone to notice or care. When Andy Warhol said that in the future everyone would be famous, but only for fifteen minutes, he was perhaps being unreasonably optimistic. Here on AmazonWorld—or as I prefer to call its electronic manifestation, in NatterSpace™—ADHD seems to be a communicable disease, and the question of how to catch and hold someone’s attention for longer than the three seconds it takes them to glance at a tweet or “like” a cute photo of an annoyed cat in a pink bunny costume—

Well, that is the challenge, isn’t it?

It doesn’t seem to help that your every step in NatterSpace is tracked, your every like and dislike recorded, studied, and turned into data to drive further push-marketing. The Amazonification of the marketplace is fast approaching its apotheosis, if not already there. You live your online life surrounded by a cloud of tiny invisible digital spies and servants, all eager to push you into buying lots more of whatever it is that you’ve already proven you’ll buy. So if it seems to you that there is a certain dreary sameness in the product recommendations you see...

There is. You are in the process of being bored to death by robots. Not out of malice, or even out of misguided virtue, but because that’s the easiest way for their masters to take your money. There’s probably a great SF story hiding in this idea, waiting to be written.

Years back, a fairly bright person said in an interview
I think it’s a mistake to talk about the “genre” as if it were a monolith. There may have been a time when it was possible for a dedicated fan to read a good sampling of all the new SF being published, but that time—if it ever really was—was long ago. What we’ve been going through for at least the last 30 years has been a sort of literary cladogenesis, with “the genre” fragmenting into dozens of related but distinct daughter-genres and microgenres.

The interesting part of this is that, between print-on-demand publishing, e-publishing, web publishing, and all the other emerging technologies, it’s now at least semi-practical to publish fiction that has no hope of ever appealing to a mass audience. If you wanted to, say, launch an e-zine devoted exclusively to publishing stories about promiscuous centaurs living in trailer parks in Alabama, you could do it, and do a very professional-looking job of it. Not only that, but thanks to the Internet, you would actually stand a pretty fair chance of reaching the 500 people in the world who want to read nothing but stories about promiscuous centaurs living in trailer parks in Alabama. So there’s more fiction being published than ever before.

The downside for the writer, though, is that there’s no money in it. The general interest magazines appear to be following the general interest anthologies into extinction, and extreme specialization and small-niche marketing seem to be the shape of things to come. Readers now have unprecedented power to find only exactly the types of fiction they want to read, without risk of accidental exposure to anything else. I suppose they’ve always had this power—I can think of entire years when I subscribed to Asimov’s and only read two or three stories in each issue—but at least with a general interest magazine, there was always the possibility that after you’d read the Michael Swanwick and Lucius Shepard stories, you might take a chance on Karen Joy Fowler.

But this trend towards extreme narrowcasting—it’s both fascinating and disturbing. When the reader can exercise such fine control over the input he receives, how does a writer crack through that protective shell?
Quelle surprise! The person who said that was me!

And twelve years later, the problem not only remains but has intensified: how do you get readers to take a look at books that do not conform to Amazon’s algorithmic predictions for what they should like?

Hence this column. I was going to call it “So You Want to be a Writer,” but Aislinn Batstone informs me that that title is already taken, so we will just call it what it is: “Talking Shop.” In the weeks to come I want to continue this conversation—conversation, not monologue—so this is an open call for guest columns that delve into one simple topic: What works for you?

Remember, I’m a time traveler. I come from the past, where they do things differently. I am eager to learn the ways of this strange new world.

Over to you.

In science fiction circles, Bruce Bethke is best known either for his 1980 short story, “Cyberpunk,” his 1995 Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel, Headcrash, or lately, as the editor and publisher of Stupefying Stories. What very few people in the SF world have known about him until recently is that he actually began his career in the music industry, as a member of the design team that developed the MIDI interface and the Finale music notation engine (among other things), but now works in supercomputer software R&D, doing work that is absolutely fascinating to do but almost impossible to explain to anyone not already fluent in Old High Unix and well-grounded in massively parallel processor architectures, Fourier transformations, and computational fluid dynamics.

In his copious spare time he runs Rampant Loon Press, just for the sheer love of genre fiction and the short story form.

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