Monday, February 23, 2015

Small towns, businesses, and ambitions; obscure books;Jedi barbers;midlist writer craziness;pepper soup, and why you can't nice guy your way into a date with the Luck Fairy. And nothing about math.

Longtime readers, or insomniacs who like to read a lot of back posts, know about my "seven observations" posts, where I list seven things I've been thinking about and then riff on them till I've produced something that may be converging toward coherent.  I guess newcomers and anyone who wandered in by accident are about to find out.  In general if the title is  a seemingly random list of stuff that doesn't appear to add up to anything coherent, probably it will be one of those posts. If the content is, it's really one of those posts.
Okay, let's go with that list:
1.     Officially the US Small Business Administration  says that to be a small business, "the business must have no more than 500 employees for most manufacturing and mining industries, and no more than $7 million in average annual receipts for most nonmanufacturing industries."  So with the possible exceptions of J.K. Rowling and a handful of others, and maybe some publisher-packager boiler rooms, pretty much all fiction in the United States is produced by small businesses, at least as those nosy government types define it.
2.   It's an old number and almost certainly is lower now, but back in 2006, when paper books were really pretty much all there was, Publisher's Weekly reported that the average book in America sold just under 3,000 copies over its whole lifetime. A common rough-and-ready rule is that most book copies will average about 3 readers before ending up in the trash, a book hoarder's stash, or an MFA art student's collage. We talk all the time about our "communities of readers", which means people who have read the same work and might talk about it together.  So figure each published paper book creates a community of fewer than 10,000. This also fits with the marketing concept of "base", the number of people who buy most of the work of a given author based on the name alone. Not all publishers calculate base and many try to keep it secret, but a typical number for a traditionally published mid-list writer (5 or more books out, no best-sellers, still getting offers but not increases in advances for the next book) might be around 10,000. So those "communities of readers" tend, from two different measures, to be about 10,000 people or so.
3.   The Office of Management and Budget, because so many policy decisions are made based on its data, has put a lot of effort into categorization of villages, cities, towns,etc.  North American geography is pretty odd by the standards of the rest of the world, but OMB's criteria break down into big, middle, and small cities, the latter being 50,000 people and up, with every county from which more than 25% of the population commutes into the central area being counted as part of the city; "micropolitan counties," which are counties with at least one town larger than 10,000* where more than 75% of workers stay in-county; and "non-metro," which are counties that have only "small towns," defined as towns with less than 10,000 people.
4.   Combine all those definitions and here's a reality: nearly all fiction writers out there, including the successful ones, are small businesspeople working for a community that isn't much bigger than a small town.
5.    I have always observed that the best and worst businesses I've dealt with, in a lifetime as a worker, customer, consultant, and service provider of many kinds, are small town small businesses. The good ones are better than any bigger business you might find in a larger city, but the bad ones are awful in ways no other business could dream of being.
6.   In my experience the reasons why some of them are the best, and the reasons why some of them are the worst, are very often the same reasons. A small-town shoe repair business is totally controlled by the owner, and if he really loves fixing shoes and takes pride in it, everything about the store will be devoted to fixing your shoes better than they've ever been fixed; but if it's the business he hates but inherited from his father, and he wishes to god he never had to see another fucking goddam shoe or talk to another spoiled customer who thinks he knows what he wants fucking ever again, and goddam it the business isn't making enough money and people are always acting like he owes them all kinds of things when all he does is write down the order and ship them to Taiwan for somebody there to fix ... well, your feet are not going to be happy.  I love diner food and my favorite diners are mostly in dots on the map; so are most of the places that appeared to be trying to poison me, once the stone-cold food finally arrived in the greasy paws of the apparently tubercular and suicidal waiter.
7.   So, I found myself thinking, what's it mean for literature that it is being produced by small business people working for small communities?
That was sort of seven, anyway.
Here goes on what it means .... and no promises I'll find anything or you'll agree with me if I do.
"Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there’s no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple spots on your hat and you're finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream boy, it comes with the territory." -- Arthur Miller, Deathof a Salesman. One of a dozen candidates for the great American play. If you didn't read it in school, go back and kick somebody. Then read it, or better yet, see it. 
Ever seen what happens when somebody on Yelp! says the pizza was greasy and arrived cold at Honest Fred's New and Used Pizza in Resume Speed, West Dakota? Depending on Honest Fred's personality, you may see abject grovelling and a promise to pave the customer's driveway in pizza for life if he will please-please-please just come back and give them another chance; or an immediate bombardment of testimonials extorted from friends and relatives of Honest Fred, ("I have been the only dentist in Resume Speed for thirty years and I do not see more than one broken tooth per year I can attribute to Fred's pizza") or outright sockpuppetry ("Honest Fred's Pizza is like a vision of the divine, an anonymous archbishop"); or of course Honest Fred absolutely losing it ("I remember you! You were the customer with the ugly wife and the foul-mouthed nose-picking children who undertipped my daughter and left stains on the chairs, and you better take that down or else!")
Ever notice what happens when non-bestselling writers (and even some at the low end of bestselling) get bad reviews, or when someone says something that might cause somebody not to buy their books?
Well, yes, that.
Because the actual customer base is so small, there's a real fear that having a bad word or phrase attached to the author -- whether it's "historically inaccurate," "racist," "ungrammatical", "made me feel dirty to read," or "no, just no"** — might be enough to put an end to a career, the way that a bad Yelp! review might make just enough cars passing by on the interstate decide to go ten miles on to the nearest Pizza Hut.  There can be an overwhelming feeling of "it's their opinion but it's my living," and people seldom behave well when they feel powerless. Hence the wise advice from writer-friends who have not gotten slammed lately: ignore all reviews, learn to read any review as just an abstract bit of marketing data, or don't read them at all. Take nothing personally.
Of course the same writers who give that advice will need it again themselves, probably.  When the heart is pounding with, "What if a school board bans my book because one anonymous person said I was anti-Jesus or anti-gay or both?" it's pretty hard to remember: one reader's opinion, read by almost no one (even if it's in a major review outlet; the vast bulk of people who read for pleasure seldom or never read reviews).
Pretty much every "How to Be A Real Live Writer Like Me" website, book, seminar, etc. outside there will tell you it's important to grow a thick skin, or just not read reviews, or work on either not caring or not knowing about the bad things people are saying about your work.  Most of them, though, don't mention the real reason: because way down there in the existential am-I-gonna-make-it level, anything bad said about us or our work out in public scares the living piss out of all of us.
You can be bitter about it like James Thurber was in "A Very ProperGander." You can try to shrug it off like most of us do, more and less successfully.  You can lose your shit all over the Intarwebz and go after your critics like a raving nut, which we almost all hope not to do.*** But that feeling that one fast-spreading ugly word about you can be the end of the world never goes away.
All my life I'm looking for the magic
 I've been looking for the magic
-- Dwight Twilley. NOT a great song. You don't have to read, see, or listen to it, as far as I'm concerned. Though I'm sure Dwight Twilley would forgive you if you did.

Is there any of you out there who has ever really liked a really obscure writer?**** And have you ever noticed that there was something you thought was pretty wonderful that no one else, or almost no one else, seemed to love like you did?
I think that's the common experience of readers everywhere.  There's only so much literary attention to go around, what there is seems to be rather like a Zipf distribution; for every Harry Potter there are ten squidzillion other boy magician stories (my favoriteis Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Black and Blue Magicwhich isn't even her best book, but I'm not much of a boy-and-magic kind of person).  Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis and even Rosemary Sutcliff's Aquila family YAs stay in print forever and shape a million kids' vision of ancient Rome; ForFreedom and for Gaul gathers dust on a few obscure school library shelves, and George Finkel's Watchfiresto the North (Twilight Province in the UK)  is something you pretty much have to go to a rare book dealer for, but I can testify that they absolutely fired my 13-year old imagination (which was going through a serious Roman kick) every bit as much as their more famous cousins.   I've had an amazingly fine time of a sea adventure with Stephen Sheppard's For All the Tea in China as much fun as anything Sabatini or C.S. Forester or dare-I-say-it Patrick O'Brien ever wrote. I've spent memorable and pleasant evenings reading a fine cozy mystery (and I usually hate cozies), AllEmergencies, Ring Super and a quirky little crime novel, Jen Sacks's Nice, either of which would fully deserve the kind of attention that Lawrence Block gets for Bernie Rhodenbarr or Elaine Viets for her "Dead End job" mysteries.  Just this evening, as my spouse was looking for something historical and romantic, I handed her a copy of Ciji Ware's Wicked Company, which is describable as "theatre history fiction"***** and which I would figure any Diana Gabaldon fan would gobble up, but it's not even Ciji Ware's best known book by a long stretch.
Now, aside from causing some of you to check off a list of obscure books you've never heard of but think sound kind of interesting, the point of that exercise is this: every year there are some pretty damned fabulous books that roll out the publisher doors and sink without a trace. And equally truly, every year there are some books that for no better reason, and with no more publicity, break out and burst onto the best seller lists—all of us in the business know something of the history of The Hunt for Red October, 'Salem's Lot, The Godfather, Forever Amber, Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, and all the rest, because after all hardly anyone starts out as a best-seller, but we all have dreams and we like to know it happened before and could happen again.  Somehow, one costume drama breaks out and takes over the bookshelves for  a decade; one  vampire novel (at a time when the genre was thought to be dead and staked) comes bursting out; one "desk jockey intelligence analyst has to become a field agent" thriller storms through the best-seller lists.
          And this breeds a slightly pathetic belief in magic among us small business owners serving small communities, because that's the very natural response to having your life depend on something unpredictable and just outside your control.  The Jaycees decide to rent your back room for their first-Tuesday breakfast meeting, five of them fall in love with your  Farmer's Scramble, and suddenly your restaurant is thriving.  You get the Ace franchise for a hardware store and open up the month before a major construction project starts five miles up the road, and then a hailstorm hits the county, and suddenly you can't keep basic tools and materials in stock; by the time the rush is over, you're the hardware store for a fifty mile radius.  Your Just Like Home Made jams take first prize at the county fair, and you hand out a ton of samples, and three prominent local Ladies Who Lunch start talking them up ... any of that can happen.
Or your first week open, a new teenage employee posts a selfie of himself venting his nose into your pies; or the local Wal-Mart expands its hardware section the week before you open and beats you with prices you can't match; or you staked it all on your brilliant huckleberry jam and the guest judge is allergic to huckleberries.
So the small businessperson gets out there and tries to make things happen, by means rational and not, and because so much is out of control, can become obsessed with almost any aspect of the business. Maybe just the right sign, maybe working just the right contact, maybe ... in a way not too different from obsessed loser guys trying to attract the pretty girl about which they know nothing, they're looking for that one thing to let her see I'm a Nice Guy.
Her? Her who?
Let's just call her the Luck Fairy.
Ever seen a writer go berserk about awards? or about review copies? or promotional contests or newsletters or business cards or tweets or ...
Somewhere out there, there's the magic. Something will make it happen. Ten books ... twenty books ... in the case of one guy I know******, 31 books .... the next one, though, that's gonna turn it around, because it'll have the magic. You'll figure out a way to charm the right delivery drivers, the way Jacqueline Susann did with Valley of the Dolls. You'll tell a bunch of great stories to a publishing exec and your book will be bought without an outline, like Mario Puzo did for The Godfather. You'll die and your mother will lay siege to every press in America to get your masterwork published (I don't think that was John Kennedy Toole's conscious strategy, actually). The president of the United States will mention that he really likes this obscure series of books about a spy named James Bond ...
So you chase awards, or worry about whether they're fair; and you try to get celebrities photographed holding your book; and you go to conventions and bomb the hell out of the freebie table with clever bookmarks; and one way or another, you do the dance of trying to attract the Luck Fairy, like the invisible Nice Guy soaked with flop sweat waiting for  a chance to talk to her. 
Because ... if you court the Luck Fairy and she spurns you, at least you tried. Heck, you were a nice guy. It wasn't fair. She didn't give you a chance.
Whereas, if you just leave it up to her, your fate is in the hands of the most capricious and indifferent power there is. Because nobody really knows what  the Luck Fairy wants.
Another thing about small town small business people: they either really know their market or their market really doesn't have much choice, and either way can work, and either way can be a sudden catastrophe.  If, as a barber, you know every head in town, and what would look best on it and what the most important people in that person's life like and what the insecurities are, your continuing attention means they'll be back, always, over and over. But if you're the only barber in town, maybe everyone's in a mullet, because you really know how to cut mullets, and that works too, for a while.
When a new barber comes to town, if you're the one who knows the local market, you're basically okay. Some people will go to the new barber, but mostly your customers will stick with you.  The new barber will take a while to win customers over, even if he's very good, and by that time you'll have retired or upped your game. You can even afford to be friendly with the new guy; there's enough hair for all of you, and you can find ways to split the market profitably, and even perhaps expand it. Maybe he knows how to sell speciality dyes and shampoos that you don't have much experience with, and he'll share his expertise, and you'll share your local knowledge, and soon the town will have two good thriving barbers.
On the other hand, if you're the mullet specialist, you're through. And you're likely to think, for the rest of your life, that everything was fine back when you were the Old Republic's One True Jedi Barber, until a Sith Barber came in and stole all the business.
Which, again, is part of why there's such a polar response to the next generation of writers among the not-quite-has-beens-cause-we-never-was writers.  Either you figure you're good at what you do (correctly or not) and you can still find a niche, or you think the new lot are ruining it for everyone (even if, or especially if, you were pretty good but fashions are just changing).
One of my first employers -- I swept out his shop when I was in high school -- was a jewelry store owner who taught me a marketing secret I still treasure.  "There are two mistakes you can make with your market. One is to ignore it. The other is to suck up to it."
This was how he explained that he always listened very carefully to what people were asking him for, but if they were asking for something that was going to look wrong on them -- or saddle them with too much debt -- or in general cause them to regret their purchase eventually, he'd politely tell them it was a bad idea.
More than once, I've been saved by a waiter who said, "Um, that's on the menu, and I'll serve it if you want, but ...."  Years later I sold credit card services to a restaurant owner who asked experienced waiters if they'd ever said anything like that to a customer. "If they say they have, it's a big thing in their favor," she said. "Naturally I tell them that if we've got anything like that on the menu I want to hear about it. But while I'm deciding whether to keep it, change it, or replace it, I want my waiters to be looking out for the customer experience. If I decide they're wrong, I might tell them to say, 'Well, I just don't like ...' or 'It's very different from ... ' so that they don't have to directly recommend something they don't like.  But if you make someone sell something that they think sucks, they won't sell it well, and the customer will be primed to hate it, and that does no one any good."
That's a small obsession of mine that I'll re-echo here: the worst thing that can happen to a book, often, is to be sold as some other book. That's why in my early career, when people were sticking that "next Heinlein" label on me (and several other writers, since Heinlein had just recently died) , I gritted my teeth a lot********.  Because, honestly, people who opened up my books were not going to find a Heinlein novel inside, and if that was what they were looking for, they would start off disappointed.  It's also why I really detest having a cover that is aimed to sell well but not to sell my book; reader expectations are set by that cover and if they're not expecting what they get, they react like the legendary man eating in a French restaurant for the first time, who discovered snails in his escargot.
For the most part, small stores will never be Wal-Mart, two-chair barber shops won't become Great Clips, your little Mexican restaurant is not going to boom into Taco Bell. And you won't be happy unless you can love that fact, unless you'd rather be who you are and do what you do than be really, really big. (Being happy after becoming really, really big is not anything I know jack about. Note to Luck Fairy: I would be happy to find out).  It's nothing to do with lack of ambition; plenty of splendid writers were economically marginal their whole lives, and are now remembered only by a few of us, despite their own best efforts. It's just that some of us don't have the knack or luck or whatever for big success; we're not "too different" or  "too bold" or "too ahead of our time," we just didn't find a wide enough readership to be big. Nor were we too honest to sell out; most big-selling writers do things that annoy their most devoted fans from time to time, just because that's the way of writing, you can't please every reader all the time even if you try, and trying is to do so is hard work to no purpose.
Old joke: a man new to town goes into a local diner and asks what's good.  Everyone, the waiters and customers, immediately says "Always order the soup of the day here, it's the only place with good soup in town." So of course he does. But on the first bite he finds himself gagging and grabbing for his water glass; there's so much pepper that he feels like he's just annoyed a policeman.  The waiters summon the cook who comes out and says, "Sir, I hear you don't like the soup. I'm really sorry. Wasn't there enough pepper?"
Notice that the diner's fortunes would not be improved by reducing the pepper; it's what everyone comes there for. You've got to be willing to lose some customers because you don't make what they want. You probably should name your place House of Plenty Pepper, and label all the soups "... with super pepper!", and in general let people know that's what you sell. You definitely shouldn't let your advertising people talk you into selling them as "mild and creamy"  just because they hear that mild and creamy is in this year. But, dammit, if you make awesome pepper soup, make it, and do your damnedest to let all the pepper soup lovers know that's what you make.
Well, that's quite enough of that. I don't seem to have reached a conclusion. And I don't know that I've said anything very interesting to anyone but me. But there it is.
Was there enough pepper? I hear the Luck Fairy really likes pepper.
*the "micropolis," a word I've got to use in a story one of these days
**to quote from some of my own 1-stars
*** but understand painfully well when one of our friends does
****That guy in the back who just said, "Yeah, you" -- thanks, I think
*****I used it sometimes as a text when I taught theatre history; not only does it give a very accurate picture of 18th century London theatre, students actually read it
****** for radio call-in self-help, or an advice column, this would be phrased as "I have this old friend ..."
*******  And I've heard from several of the others that they did too. For a while there in the 90s it was Gritfest among youngish white male SF writers