Pure signal.

John Scalzi’s total failure of vision

Hmm… John Scalzi proves that it would be difficult to follow the 1000 true fan model by following the traditional publishing model. Wait — that is unclear, try again — he looks at the model from the point of view of someone who was successful and comfortable making the compromises necessary to please editors and agents, and says that after making those compromises he doesn’t see how the 1000 true fan model would add up for someone who is doing what he does. When you factor in the range of options that he is willing consider, I think that the limitations he sees for that range earn him a big “So what?”

Read about the 1000 true fan model here.

What he says is factually correct –within the parameters of artistic expression which he has chosen to explore– like talking to a man about the roundness of the earth — you have to admit that when you look around you that the world is flat. But if the skeptic stops there, or returns all arguments there, then he is no true skeptic. I agree that John has described life on the ground pretty well — but I want to get high enough to see the curvature — I want to consider that the dream of flight may be real. I think the true strength of the 1000 true fans model is well illustrated by the fact that John can’t imagine any way other than sitting behind a desk to get his message out to the world. What he offers for a price point for self publishing is just what you can find pre-packaged on the web. I’ve seen lots of examples of people doing their own printing and binding that are cheaper than the figures he quotes — but you have to be willing to get ink on your hands. That isn’t a problem for me because I think it’s exiting to get ink on my hands.

But consider if you are in fact an the ground with John Scalzi, then what John Scalzi says is true. Say that you are an existing author who has a “clean copy” style — you can produce marketable clean copy, and have been recognized by agents for being able to do so — so that you can wing a proposal across an editors desk and have a fair chance of a hearing. Say the establishment is already invested in you (he may balk at my use of the word establishment — I don’t mean it like some kind of conspiracy. Just that if he wants to kite a proposal he has a phone number to call, and he knows how far away from the norm to push — which is not far.) — so that you can get distribution. And say that you don’t want to do anything for yourself, so that doing your own production and distribution means you are stuck paying retail at a per-copy basis for your books (and you aren’t interested in any other media which he conveniently ignores.)

Then in fact his position is warranted.

Oh — and say you want to promote your entire career from behind your desk — so that it takes 10 years to build up your readership. You don’t want to work as a waiter and save up money to go to conventions and hand out purple ink mimeographs of short stories dressed up in a costume. Or leave copies of cliffhangers on coffee-shop tables as you travel cross country reading weird science fiction at music open mikes with a bad ukulele back up.

Then, true, if you want to follow the existing model of success, then the new model will probably not work for you. What is scary to me is that he then just dismisses it — as if no one in the world would want to do anything differently than how he has done it. Because it is what he has done his whole life — and can’t even imagine doing something differently. And that is why I like the idea of finding 1000 true fans — because it assumes from the start that anything goes. I have to select from the whole world, and appeal to any 1000 people within it, not a small group of editors who were conformist enough to survive college and who all agree on the fundamentals of style (think that is unfair? Look at what gets published.)

But say you are starting out and you don’t want to have to try and get noticed by the existing editorial establishment. Say you don’t like what you hear at the various MFA programs — or say you are a musician or painter or sculptor of some kind — or some combination that no one has thought of yet — a Kareoke auto design botanist — an earth mover finger painting tuba yodeler — in that case then what the 1000 true fans model opens up for you is a viable method for professional development. And that model is ANYTHING THAT WORKS. And to get over the stupid math games (because it was always an approximation) lets go ahead and reconfigure the model so that the true fan is someone who gives you $100 net per year. Admittedly not your paperback audience — but then your paperback audience you are supporting for free with pdfs. And maybe it is 2000 people at $50 a piece — all the other details still hold.

You can imagine going on tour for 5 years and keeping every email address you find. You can imagine handing out your work in pamphlet form on the streets of any American city. You can imagine letter writing campaigns, publicity stunts, releasing limited editions and special artifacts. There is a (probably tragically dated) concept called guerrilla marketing which you can revive and expand.

You can imagine having a personal relationship with your fans instead of your agent, your editor and your publisher.

Is it difficult to do so? Probably — and, honestly, I have never done it — so maybe it is more difficult than just writing like you are supposed to write and trying to get an agent like everybody else. However I’m not writing about how I have done or not done it — but why I am exited about it, which is different from why John thinks people are exited about it. What I found exiting about the 1000 true fans model (which I plan on activating through saturating local and national performance venues, videos on the web, blogs, blog comments and letters) is that I don’t have to get an editors approval to write what I want to write. I don’t have to sell to 100,000 audience members — it is possible that there are 1000 people out there who think like I do — and that means that I can be myself and write like I want — that is most important, but secondly comes the fact that I can release most of my intellectual property directly into the public domain and still make it as an artist. I have a shot at being in complete control to decide to do or not to do with my writing whatever I want in whatever form I want. So John, what is important about freedom to me is not that it is easy, but that it is freedom.

John Scalzi writes as if what should be important about the 1,000 true fan model is that it should look easier to make a living — I suspect that is because thinking about making a living has driven most of his decision making through most of his career (and no shame there — he is successful.) I just hope that my career will have me thinking about different things. If I wanted to think about making a living I would have been a copy machine salesman. Writing is hard.


March 26, 2008 - Posted by | People who fucking Suck


  1. So, what you’re saying re: 1K fans is that:

    a) it is possible, and
    b) it takes a lot of work.

    Which as it happens is what I said as well.

    My beef with the “1,000 fans” argument as presented by Kelley is his implication that gathering 1,000 people willing to pay you $100 (or whatever, but nevertheless a significant sum) is in fact a simple process — why, just add one of those fans a day for three years! In my experience, and in the experience of those other creators with fan bases that I know, this simple process is anything but, and I thought Mr. Kelley elided over a number of practical issues that present real world obstacles, some of which I noted. I understand people don’t like hearing practical objections to cool ideas — they get in the way of “vision” — but, you know. It should be said nevertheless.

    As for “needing an editor’s approval for what I have to write” — well, speaking as someone who has had a blog for ten years and who sold his first two published novels after they appeared on his Web site (the printed form of each being unchanged from the original online forms save some much-needed copy editing), I find this a little funny. From this end it seems your assumptions are based on a conception of my career, my relationship with my editor(s) and my opinion and experience with unmediated interaction with fans, that doesn’t match with my real world experience with any of the above.

    Which is fine; I don’t expect you to know all the intricate details of my somewhat-wacky career. What you should know, however, is that you’ve constructed a strawman Scalzi. He fits the argument you wish to make, conveniently enough, but his relationship to the real me is tenuous at best. As your argument relies on this strawman, you might wish to revisit it.

    Comment by John Scalzi | March 26, 2008 | Reply

  2. Hi John,

    Your access to the publishing industry is completely different from an unknown writer. You write for a well defined genera and market, so you are self selected for the publishing industry. This does not mean that your objective starting out was just to sell books, just that your work fits within the very narrow definition which pleases editors and publishers. Most starting writers are not as fortunate as you. Your criticism of the model comes completely from the point of view of a writer who has the kind of access that you have — for every writer like you there are 1000 possible writers who could never even use your model. (for instance if you wanted to sell science fiction in sonnets, or printed on flower pots, or scrap metal.)

    You are selling a well defined and already successful product. The thousand fans model is more difficult for you than for someone just starting out.

    Regardless of weather you were just a good fit by accident, or weather you made yourself a good fit on purpose. No strawman — you just aren’t seeing that most potential artists have a totally different relationship with the distribution media than you have. I’m talking about people I have personally known who gang up and buy an old letter-press, or hand bind their own books in cloth. Who print their own CD’s. Who make clothing. Your analysis was unconscionably narrow.

    I think that it would be harder for any given person to do what you have done than to achieve the 1000 true fans model.


    Comment by bootslack | March 26, 2008 | Reply

  3. “Your access to the publishing industry is completely different from an unknown writer.”

    It is now, sure; it wasn’t, obviously, when I was starting out. My access to the science fiction publishing industry was exactly the same as anyone starting out, i.e., very little indeed. You are making the assumption that because I have access to publishers NOW, that I was not nor ever was in a position of cultivating a hand-sold fandom, which is not correct. The *reason* my novels were sold through my Web site was not because I was hoping to have them published through that method but because I was leveraging my site’s readership (accrued through time) to directly sell copies of the work to my fans that way. That the work sold to a publisher(s) was a fluke; I didn’t seek it out, although I took the offer when it was given. But my initial *experience* is directly on point to the “thousand fans” discussion, and it informs what I wrote.

    As for my criticism coming from someone who has the “kind of access I have,” and having that “access” being a reason to disregard the commentary, this sounds suspiciously like “I don’t like what this person with experience in just this sort of fan cultivation has to say, because it’s not the way I want it to be, so I’m going to posit that it is completely alien to my experience and thereby ignore it.” Which is of course your prerogative, but once again we’re back into strawman territory.

    Whether one writes novels or inscribes poetry on shards of pottery, the dynamics are the same; not every one who views your work is going to translate into a life-long fan who will shell out large sums for your work; you’re going to have to go through a large amount of people to find them. And it’s going to take a large amount of time. And you’ll be in competition with other artists for your fan’s time and money. And so on.

    Now, you are of course free to think I’m completely wrong and that my experience in this area has no relevance to you; I wish you joy in your work and financial success, and if your personal experience eventually proves me wrong, I’ll be delighted for you. I doubt that it will, but I don’t mind being wrong.

    Comment by John Scalzi | March 26, 2008 | Reply

  4. Hi John,

    “As for my criticism coming from someone who has the “kind of access I have,” and having that “access” being a reason to disregard the commentary, this sounds suspiciously like “I don’t like what this person with experience in just this sort of fan cultivation has to say, because it’s not the way I want it to be, so I’m going to posit that it is completely alien to my experience and thereby ignore it.” Which is of course your prerogative, but once again we’re back into strawman territory.”

    I do indeed see a straw-man there, but it isn’t mine. You saw the a) and the b) — which is where we agree. Where we disagree — what you are not seeing — is that c) the 1000 fans model enables a kind of success which is totally different from the kind of success which you have enjoyed. The whole point of the model is to show that people can succeed in a different way than you have succeeded. Your analysis — both before and after reading my criticism discounts this completely.

    Let me put it in conditional language: There might be a writer out there who is not going to be offered a book deal by a publisher. That writer might be able to be successful anyway, even if their voice doesn’t speak to an audience of 100,000 if they were able to provide consistent value to a much smaller number of people (numbering in the small integer multiples of 1,000). That writer could make a living in todays world by finding those people.


    Comment by bootslack | March 26, 2008 | Reply

  5. You should probably find out who put it into your argument, then. Because it’s pretty much smack-dab in the middle of it.

    Comment by John Scalzi | March 26, 2008 | Reply

  6. ———————-

    -editors note- The rapier like retort of John Scalzi to my tragically naive argument arrived after I had posted only the first line “I do indeed see a straw man there, but it isn’t mine.” When I viewed my comment, it ran into the back of the previous comment — so as I was editing, his riposte “You should probably find out who put it into your argument…” arrived. By the time I finished editing my post — I observed his. I approved it — which created the impression for him that I went back and edited the post to make him look bad.

    This was not my intent.

    He has an open invitation to edit his post to say whatever he wants at which point I will delete this explanation — it was a simple accident.

    Comment by bootslack | March 26, 2008 | Reply

  7. […] bootslack Pure signal. Naked at Work « John Scalzi’s total failure of vision […]

    Pingback by A broader interpretation of ” 1000 True Fans” — the Vision Thing « bootslack | March 27, 2008 | Reply

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