Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Competing For A Mate

On twitter I found the following somewhat rhetorical question - or perhaps perennial complaint:

jeannevb Divorce lawyer on train talking nonstop on phone w client. Y can't ppl be civil/mature during divorce & remember they USED to luv ea other?

One possible explanation lies at the interface between love and business.

The dynamics of business competition for a market share leading to the resulting monetary profit have altogether too-spooky-much in common with the dynamics of a bid for a share of a partner's romantic attention and the resulting boost to self-esteem from being chosen and loved.

Having believed oneself to be chosen and loved - only to discover it is not so leaves one with less self esteem than before the romance.

Believing that one has received Love triggers an investment of giving Love, of giving the Self. This great out-pouring of the self can create an inner deficit, but in real Love that doesn't matter. Eventually, it all flows back in even greater abundance.

It's the same with a manufacturer who sells you a product, which you open and use, then return for a full refund. The manufacturer has invested more than just the price of the product, and thus has poured out more than can ever be recouped because a return means bad word-of-mouth rumors around the product.

Manufacturers figure returns into their list prices.

People don't figure returns in when they give their hearts to another only to have their S.O. choose a third person instead.

Divorce is as bitterly powerful whether you're legally married or living together. The investment is the same. The loss is felt as robbery, or worse a scam.

We read, write, and extol stories about the eternal triangle. Two women want the same man. Two men want the same women. Three men. Three women. Whatever the triangle, one will be chosen. The other not.

And sometimes, even after choice and full investment, decisions can be changed.

Mating seems to be a zero sum game (where if one wins, the other must therefore "lose.")

Many Alien Romance novels are actually about trying to change that situation of the zero-sum-game. I have to refer you to my interstellar, human/non-human love story novels, Molt Brother and City Of A Million Legends (both available as e-books on fictionwise.com - for free chapters see the middle of http://jacquelinelichtenberg.com ) as examples of "different" ways humans can arrange their family affairs.

There can be arrangements where 3 make a couple. If it works, who's to complain? We can always point to Biblical stories about really strange living arrangements.

As I pointed out on #scifichat (on twitter where I'm jlichtenberg) on Friday Jan 15th, 2010, fiction writing is actually, when you come right down to the essence of the process, merely editing reality.

We take a point of view, (a theme), narrow the angle (select a character), and present a picture of reality that is both actually real and totally not-real. But because it's not-real, it is actually more real than reality.

That is the conundrum created by "modeling" reality as a scientist builds a mathematical model of a system in order to predict the behavior of the real system. The simplification of the "model" allows the moving parts to become comprehensible. But the simplification makes the whole thing very not-real.

Any resemblance to reality is purely accidental, as the disclaimer goes.

I have repeatedly mentioned that the whole structure of the business of "being a writer" -- of being self-employed as a freelance writer in fiction or non-fiction -- has changed totally with the advent of the e-book, of Print on Demand, and perhaps most markedly, of digital video and YouTube.

These changes are more profound than the changes brought about by the invention of the microprocessor chip.

Our fiction consuming customers now spend most of what used to be "reading time" either watching TV, DVD movies, or online videos. For both instruction and entertainment, people now prefer a real "show don't tell" in the form of a video.

Online comics and novels told in picture-panels (both animated and not), as well as games like World of Warcraft and Second Life absorb the time that such creative and intellectually developed people would have spent reading printed books say, 50 years ago (or even maybe 30 years ago).

Meanwhile, the whole generation born to a world when radio drama was THE new-fangled thing has been dying off. Those folks were readers, too, and though they enjoyed an occasional theater movie, really never learned to program a VCR.

It's not just taste in entertainment sources that has changed. It's a turnover in generations that has brought to the peak purchasing years a generation raised on the internet.

The current set of 40 year olds raising their own kids barely remember a time when their home didn't have a computer, and only vaguely remember that computers weren't originally attached to the internet. Most of them remember the tweedle-tweet of dialup song.

Those folks, raised in an online environment learned "keyboarding" in school, and spent a good portion of their college years working on a screen instead of on paper. Today, they earn their livings staring at computer screens.

And these are the tiny slice of the world who would have become book readers.

Those who read as children don't read as many books today as their parents did when their parents were 40.

There used to be an estimated 10% of the population that read 3 or 4 novels a year. They were considered our customers, the audience writers had to write to, to "hit" to sell enough copies to get paid enough to buy groceries.

There still are young people becoming addicted to text-reading for pleasure, but the % of the total population that does that has been shrinking.

I haven't seen any really recent statistics on this, but judging from the way big publishers are twitching this way and that every time something changes in the e-book market, I suspect that the total percentage of people who read fiction for fun may actually have started increasing again -- but only on the e-book side.

There is a whole population of commuters, busy carpool drivers (who have to arrive early to get a good spot in front of the school, then sit for 20 minutes), take-the-kids-to-the-park parents, stop-at-the-doctor-on-the-way-home-and-wait errand runners, people in a hurry-up-and-wait lifestyle who are opting to spend their waiting intervals reading e-books.

Of course, they also play games on their cell phones, read twitter, scan the news, and text-text-text, not to mention gab-gab-gab.

But kicking back with a good book no longer requires carrying even a paperback stuffed in a pocket. And you don't have to depend on a doctor's waiting room to have a current magazine either. Read magazines on your cell, or on Kindle and other readers.

The price of paper books is going up and up (because in mass market, volume determines price), while the price of e-books and electronic copies of magazines seems to be going down and down because the e-book doesn't have to be mass market to turn a profit.

Big players like Barnes&Noble and Amazon are trying to capture and cage a segment of that e-reader marketplace.

Which brings me back to "competing for a mate."

The Romance plot resembles Marketing in a host of particulars.

Marketers are focused on "luring" you with "enticing" advertisements designed to attract your attention with the promise of pleasure or satisfaction.

Typically women (and men too) "package" themselves with clothing that makes a "political statement" or an "availability" statement about themselves. Or maybe a "prosperity" statement. Who hunts for a poor mate on purpose?

Marketers compete for your attention and your money.

The un-mated compete for attention -- and maybe a dinner date and more.

Now we have online dating services that leverage that competition for a potential mate -- as a business model.

Finding a mate is a business which, to be profitable, needs a good "business model" (a way to take raw input and create output that shows a profit).

Business is often viewed as "combat" -- often in the form of Chess or less elegantly in the form of Football. The language is the same as any action novel would use -- "beat the competition" = "beat the enemy."

Finding a mate is often viewed the same way. A woman may dress to "out-shine" her rival at a party, or very possibly to "vanquish that bitch once and for all." Competitive dressing is learned in High School. (Just watch Buffy The Vampire Slayer episodes!)

And finding a mate is all about "possession" as is business.

"He's MINE!" she snarls just as the businessman closing a deal on a hotel at a prestigious address might snarl, "That's my hotel now!"

Avariciousness, acquisitiveness, jealousy, revenge, protectiveness, all that and more are motives in business and in romance.

In love, the object is to marry, to cement a permanent relationship involving the giving and receiving of fertile material.

In business, the object is to "close the deal," to cement a reciprocal relationship involving the giving and receiving of money.

It's really the very same transaction, for very similar motives.

So a good writer should have no trouble understanding the world of publishing?

Nothing could be further from the truth.

No? You think you understand publishing both as a writer and a reader?

Let's look a bit deeper.

Here is a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. It was brought to my attention by Patric Michael, a writer and Roweena Cherry noted it on Facebook.


That article is titled THE DEATH OF THE SLUSHPILE.

It essentially says that publishers (and producers) simply will not and can not so much as flip through unsolicited manuscripts.

To sell your fiction to such markets, you must come to them through an agent (a matchmaker!) whom that particular editor trusts, or you don't even get glanced at, nevermind "attract attention."

In the world of arranged marriages, parents ponder long and hard before choosing a matchmaker. Furthermore, matchmakers are paid really big bucks because the matches they have arranged do NOT end in divorce but happiness and fertility (the HEA ending personified).

The article essentially says that publishers (and producers) have decided for business reasons that they can't afford the time and expertise that has to be devoted to reading slush (unsolicited manuscripts) and making matches.

They will look at manuscripts that come through agents. But agents can't afford to read slush either (just browse some Agents websites and see.) I know enough Agents that I understand their business model. It does not include leeway to make the investment of time and money necessary to sort through a slushpile.


That's it. A decree made simply because of the profit motive.

Why has this happened?

As I've been noting from time to time, the entire world of the Fiction Delivery System is under major stress and is changing markedly.

Publishers were once (as recently as 35 years ago) in the business of delivering fiction (and non-fiction) to their specific markets. They chose books to publish not because of how many copies they could sell, but because the content of the book should be read, should be published, should be preserved for future generations. Readers could trust their favorite publisher's judgment on that.

That is no longer true.

With a change in the USA tax laws a couple decades ago, it became unprofitable to print a slew of copies (price per copy goes down as number of copies in the print-run goes up) and warehouse the copies until the little trickle of sales for that title ended, then "remainder" the rest. That's a business model. It was changed by Congress, the elected folks who rarely have any business experience, are not known to be avid fiction readers, and who made a law that treats printed books the same as say, boxes of roof nails.

"Remaindered" means the book goes out of print, and the publisher can continue to sell copies but not pay the writer a royalty. Roof nails don't "go out of print" and then not-pay the nail-designer.

That tax law still taxes inventory kept in a warehouse. E-books don't have an inventory in a warehouse. Neither do POD books.

This tax law drove many publishers out of business and started the cascading collapsed the entire book distribution system in the USA, a collapse which is continuing today.

As a result, bigger more predatory businesses with a different business model bought up publishing and distribution. Most of the USA publishing houses now have been bought by non-USA based publishers.

Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt is one of the biggest publishers, and the company that owns Houghton Mifflin recently filed for "restructuring" (which means they just don't pay their debts -- it's one step above bankruptcy).

Here's the story from Reuters.


And it's the same story we've been hearing with banks and other businesses going bankrupt during this recession -- too much debt, too much risk.

The new publishing system is in the business of making a profit, not of delivering fiction. And it has failed to make a profit.

The new distribution system, automated though it is now with robots and computers, still can't get enough of a "margin" to thrive, and distributors are still folding or being bought, or raising prices to where publishers can't afford to publish.

The smaller publishers went first, and now the biggest are failing. Meanwhile newspapers and magazines likewise have fired writers and reduced payroll.

Why can't they move this printed paper through the system at a profit?

Because the MARKET has changed.

Those willing to pay to read text on paper are dying off. Of the tiny fraction of all humanity that has ever been willing to read text for entertainment, the newest additions to the ranks actually prefer electronic copy. But the ranks of new readers are not growing as fast as the elders are dying off. Younger people prefer other forms of entertainment.

Marketers tried to turn publishing into a profitable business. They failed.

Perhaps they failed because they chose books to publish for profit, not because the content "ought" to be preserved for humanity?

Maybe not. Publishing was never, ever, run for a profit. Just ask the Monks in the Middle Ages who spent a lifetime copying books. They were supported by donations to The Church and didn't make a profit on their books. (and they didn't do a lot of fiction, either)

Meanwhile, today, self-publishing and e-books carefully chosen by small publishers for well defined markets are thriving.

There's a question I seldom heard anyone ask. "Are e-books competing for the attention of the same readers who read print books?"

I don't think so. People who want an e-book won't buy a print book. People who want a print book simply will not buy an e-book. There's a bit of a venn diagram style overlap in the two populations, but it's a tiny slice who are "in transition" -- and who tend to drop paper buying once they get "the right" reader device, one they really like.

Many traditional publishers are trying to distribute their titles as e-books either simultaneously or after the print edition. They see e-books as an alternate distribution channel, another way to make a profit with titles carefully chosen for profit potential (and no other attribute).

Unfortunately, the proliferation of e-books and self-published books (not the same thing; "e-book" publishers do edit and select for profit potential) created something of a different problem. A self-published book may not go through the "select" process, but the author usually dreams of a profit.

There is just so much stuff being published (and produced) that "should not be published" that there is no economic way for anyone to find, amidst the torrent, the one or two items that humanity really, REALLY needs preserved.

The noise has swamped the signal.

And the gatekeepers have given up and welded the gate shut, as you see from the article sited above.

This is not the first time this gate-shutting has happened. And I don't think it will last.

But for the moment, no new writers are being admitted except via agents (who are not set up to read slush). And agents can only deal with items that actually will make a big profit -- and already appear enticing to marketers.

Sunday, January 17, 2010, I found an article that puts another perspective on all this.

Listen up, worldbuilders, because this is how world building is done.
Observe reality, edit reality, create a new world.

While text-based fiction on paper is declining, and/or shifting to e-delivery, a portion of those who would have become text readers are shunning text for movies and TV. But text-consumers have never been a significant market. That's why films make so much money. Text-readers will go to films, but film-buffs won't read a book (unless it's a spinoff).

It's all economics and business model.

"I'll make you a star!" was the cry that went up in the 1930's -- not from publishing but from Hollywood.

Hollywood became the world's iconic source of video entertainment.

But the USA is a tiny market compared to the world. So by the 1970's, no Hollywood studio could make a profit without a strong after-market in other countries. By the 1980's or so, Hollywood products also needed a strong VHS sell-through, and now DVD, Blu-ray, download and streaming video.

Alien Romance readers all know how Manga and other Japanese products have swept into the USA. The Japanese have specialized in telling tender people-stories in video done very cheaply -- so it's very profitable. British TV and film has always been popular here, but not with every demographic, and it takes "every demographic" to make a profit on an expensive product.

The market in the USA for foreign films has always been small. But with the success of Canadian TV imports (now made unprofitable by a USA tax law so we don't get made-in-Canada TV shows like Forever Knight and Highlander anymore), the USA has shown itself open to other country's fiction products.

Meanwhile, Hollywood, once the unquestioned source of all films worldwide, met up with the "Spaghetti Western" made in Italy, then higher quality items emmanating from less likely markets. The world learned a lesson. Hollywood's products could be out-competed for the necessary "mate".

In the last 20 years, the technical production of Hollywood films has moved "offshore" -- to Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and less likely places. New Zealand did the LORD OF THE RINGS and other extravaganzas. The biggest driving force behind that move was the artificial increase in the value of the US dollar - held too high too long, contributing to the worldwide recession we're in now.

It's all taxes and politics, competition and compromise. (The SFR question is, "Does it have to be?")

As I said above, you'd think knowing how to plot a Romance would teach you how to run a business.

But if you have missed the connection between the politics behind the value of the US Dollar, the choice of Federal Reserve governors and Chairmen and the choice of which scripts or screenwriters to buy and make into expensive films, you have no clue what business is all about and are seriously impaired when it comes to worldbuilding.

So, back to Hollywood. The US film industry began losing market share in markets much bigger than the USA. Recently, "Bollywood" has become the primary supplier of motion picture entertainment in India, unseating the US films.

The icon status of Hollywood is confirmed by the nickname "Bollywood" -- a name which isn't Indian at all.

Hollywood, this great, iconic engine of entertainment which iconicised American Culture many places in this world, saw their market share trickling away.

The value of the US dollar tanked, big time and that has a huge effect on profits of international companies. There's talk of abandoning the US dollar as the "Reserve Currency" and the denomination for pricing oil.

Panic set in. Dominance and ownership is threatened.

This is a feeling just exactly like the feeling the losing member of a love-triangle feels. "Oh, no!"

And the response of Hollywood was very much the same as a spurned lover.

Gradually, over the last 20 years as Bollywood became the preferred source of motion picture entertainment in India, Hollywood has strained to capture the attention, to preen, strutt and entice that international market.

Why? Because even with offshoring production costs (when the US dollar was strong, it became ultra-cheap to do extravagant productions in Australia or Canada), Hollywood was dancing on a razor thin margin as dangerous as that now totally lost by paper publishing. With the reversal in the value of the dollar, the whole business model of Hollywood had to change - fast!

The world was out-competing the USA in entertainment-production for the first time in history.

So what did Hollywood do?

A long time ago, Hollywood began selecting and creating scripts entirely and totally for the story's ability to be understood WITHOUT DIALOGUE.

Subtitles are awkward and translations and dubbing only "work" across narrow cultural gulfs.

The biggest audiences flock to films they don't have to understand, just to be wowwed by intense and impossible visuals.

Hollywood went for the ACTION FILM that needs no translation (i.e. primal as I've mentioned so often in connection with Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! series).

Hollywood has been practicing and in this latest crisis environment, has perfected the ability to choose this type of film script. The biggest big bucks have to go to the projects that can sell well in all worldwide markets.

And since that's what Hollywood was investing the big bucks in, that's ALL USA audiences were ever allowed access to, which has cultivated a taste for that type of film in the USA too.

The scripts have become subordinated to the actual people-stories to avoid cultural gaffs, and bewilderment.

We've all wondered why that is. We've seen it on TV -- scripts with holes you can drive a truck through win awards.

Why? Because they're exportable. They were never done for the USA audience to begin with, and nobody really cares what we like because we're a minority in the world audience.

Anything not exportable to the broader market just doesn't get made -- or if it does, it gets mangled in order to simplify it and make room for more self-explanatory (a cave man could understand it) visuals, chase scenes, fight scenes, battle scenes, sex scenes.

So Hollywood, the great icon of the USA's industrialization years, went to war with all rivals to win the "mate" of India's movie-going population.

IN 2009, Hollywood finally began to win. The film AVATAR is a perfect example.

Here's an article in TIME magazine on Hollywood vs. Bollywood in 2009/2010.


And this article says:
"Hollywood films, which only cashed in on 1% of the total Indian market 10 years ago, now skim 7% of that growing market."

As a result of that win, however narrow, you can expect the product coming out of the big production companies in Hollywood to become more and more suited to the non-USA marketplace, i.e. Bollywood's market, or China's market.

With the US dollar becoming cheaper, an imported Rupee buys Hollywood more Dollars. That makes it more imperative to please India's movie-goers than it does to please USA movie-goers.

It's the same in publishing, especially in e-book. Fiction writers' mating habits must change to woo the international market's fiction consumer.

Your reader/viewer is the mate you as a writer are seeking and the clergy who will marry you is your publisher, the Agent is the matchmaker. Other writers are your competitors.

That's how it is in 2010. How will it be in 2025?

Can publishing and producing (via small publishers, e-book publishers, small producers, the indie producers) once again afford to disseminate fiction because it "ought" to be cherished and passed on to posterity?

Or are we forever trapped in a for-profit-or-die scenario?

Can you see a similarity between that question and the question, "Can lovers afford to get married for love alone? Or are they forever trapped in a for-sex-or-die scenario?" Or maybe, "...in a marry a rich spouse" scenario?

Sex and money are the obvious profit. But love is the real point of romance, just as "ought to be preserved for posterity" is the real point of publishing.

Or not?

Build your own world. Then write in it.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Great analogies, Jacqueline. Love and business. The question of whether a marriage for love can realistically last forever, is ironically, the very question that lead me and Dawn to write a romantic comedy script about marriage being renewable instead of for life... much like a business contract.

    Coincidentally, I read the same Slush Pile WSJ article just yesterday on that very train ride I posted the rhetorical question.

    The way I see it, the literary/film business is very similar to marriage. I've often said, "If you marry for love alone, you're an idiot." I stand by those words. In the like, if a publisher/producer took on a writer's work for love alone, she's likely committing professional suicide. This is a business. Plain and simple. We write; they sell. It's our job to find a balance in writing what we love and are passionate about, but keeping in mind whether it's marketable or not. If we're smart, we'll be able to do both.

    It's about compromise without feeling compromised. Because if writers, publishers and agents lose respect for one another, divorce is inevitable.

    Thank you for your very informative piece.

  2. It's good to know that the publishing industry is thriving. This means that more and more people are putting their writing potentials into careers, into reality.