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.
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