john scalzi

History Will Forget The Sad Puppies

Several of you have asked me what I thought about the Hugo awards mess this year. The best response I have is "Please go read what John Scalzi has to say because he's more deeply connected to this, knows more about it, and is a fantastic, thoughtful writer as well." Seriously, go check out all of his Hugo awards neepery for a much more knowledgable take on the subject.

If you haven't been following the subject and don't feel like reading Scalzi, here's my "as I understand it" summary: A small publishing house specializing in SF books with a conservative slant has gamed the nomination process for the Hugo awards. They managed to sweep the nominations in more than a few categories. I get the sense that this is primarily a commerical play by the publishing house, but it's been cast as a political move based on the (extremely dubious) claim that the Hugo awards have been co-opted by leftists. They've called their group the "sad puppies" because...I don't know, they thought it sounded better than "racist, homophobic jerks?" Anyway, the awards are almost guaranteed to be a mess this year. Some authors on the conservative slate have removed themselves from consideration. Many voters have decided to vote "no award" for some or all categories. It's ugly.

If you want my take on the Hugos, I'll give you this:

In ye olden dayes, the players selected for baseball's all-star game were elected by public ballots. In 1957, the ballots were being printed in newspapers instead of passed out to the fans at games (as I remember from the 1970's) or online (as it's done now). The Cincinnati Enquirer decided to help the fans out a little by printing pre-filled ballots with nothing be Cincinnati ballplayers selected. As a result, the starting lineup for the 1957 National League team consisted of Stan Musial, a St. Louis Cardinal, and 7 cincinnati Reds. 

People rightly saw this as a subversion of the process. Ford Frick, the commissioner of baseball, immediately replaced two Reds outfielders, Wally Post and Gus Bell, with Hank Aaron and Willie Mays because, c'mon, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. The remaining Reds were allowed to start the game and then almost immediatley replaced once the game started, and the game looked like an All-Star game once more.

Frick took the vote away from the fans and let managers, coaches, and players select the All Stars, a system which survived until 1970. It wasn't really the fans' fault, though. The All-Star voting system was poorly designed and had always been open to this kind of abuse. It just took an incident like this to bring these issue to the forefront and get baseball to change the way the voting worked.

The lesson here, at least as it relates to the Hugo awards, is that almost sixty years later, the players elected by this broken system, Johnny Temple, Don Hoak, Roy McMillan, Gus Bell, and Wally Post, do not seem to have derived any particular benefit from their dubious election. Likewise, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, and Eddie Matthews are not diminished by their failure to win the vote in this flawed ballot. In the long view, merit won out over attempts to leverage a poor system into a few vanity awards, just as I imagine will be the case for the Sad Puppies and their ilk.

Of Straw Men and Middlemen

I've been meaning to write something about Interstellar since seeing it on Saturday, but I feel like I need to see it again before committing to anything. It's a complicated, frustrating movie, and it isn't exactly the film I thought I was going to be seeing, so I'd like to see it again before committing to anything.

I know I should let this go, but Mr. Scalzi posted three more tweets in defense of "middlemen" and they've been stuck in the forefront of my thoughts ever sense. Here's what he had to say:

My initial reaction was "Does the word 'middleman' even mean what I think it means? I've been terribly wrong about words I thought I knew, so I checked the ol' dictionary and came up with this:

noun: middle-man
a person who buys goods from producers and sells them to retailers or consumers.

”we aim to maintain value for money by cutting out the middleman and selling direct”

Ok, that's pretty much exactly what I had been thinking. Anyone who adds value to the product is, by definition, not a "middleman." The middleman doesn't enter the equation until after whatever you're selling has been proofed, edited, typset, etc. The book is finished by the time the middleman enters the equation. 

Now, I know approximately nothing about business of publishing.. I don't know how cleanly you can make the distinction between "middleman" and "not-middleman." I know that, in the music industry, when you talk about "middlemen," you're talking about the major labels, distributors, wholesalers, and your retailers like Peaches and Tower and most especially Wal-Mart. 

I'm guessing these aren't the types of middlemen that Scalzi is defending. I think we're just talking past each other. I think we're just taking two different meanings of the word "middleman" and talking about two very different industries (as the discussion was originally about music). I hope that's the case. He doesn't seem like the sort to go off the handle when his fans are trying to say "I wish more of the purchase price went to the people who actually worked on the books you write."

OK, enough on this. I happen to love John Scalzi's work (the first e-book I purchased was one of his), I love his tweets, and I love reading his blog. We differ on this issue and I could well be in the wrong. I just couldn't get it out of my head until I put it down on something paper-ish.

In which I sound more flip on Twitter than I meant to

Earlier this afternoon, John Scalzi posted this on his Twitter feed:

I agree wholeheartedly (I have paid for all of the music in my collection that wasn't given to me as a gift) and responded with:

@scalzi Would always prefer to buy, and if directly from the artist if possible. Hate paying toll to middlemen who abuse artists and fans.

To which he responded:

@MrRidleyKemp The "middlemen" I work with are people who do work I don't want to do, better than I could. I want them paid, too.

Ouch. Ok, it's a fair enough comment because I didn't specify that I wasn't talking about publishing in general or him specifically there. I know approximately nothing about the publishing business. I know enough people working as writers and editors to know that publishing is really, really different than the music business.

And the music business? I know something about that one. I worked in it, on the non-creative side, off and on for most of a decade. I have a reasonable handle on the economics of the business and I can say with some degree of authority that the middlemen absolutely abused their position for a very long time, taking advantage of both artists and fans alike.

Back in ye olden times, in the days of recorded music before there was an internet, creating playable recordings of music and distributing them had a prohibitively high cost of entry. Only a few companies could do it economically. This meant that, for artists wanting to market their music, there were very few options available. It in no way resembled what we think of as a "market." Similarly, these companies had a monopoly on selling these recordings. It was a non-competitive situation on both ends, and the companies milked the situation to an abusive degree.

The price of the recordings,of course, was "whatever the market will bear", but the cut that went to the artist was absurdly small because the artists had no choice but to enter into these one-sided deals. This generated ill-will among artists who rightly felt abused, and didn't exactly make the fans happy since only a tiny portion of their purchase price was going to support the part of the whole supply chain they were wanting to support.

Then the internet happened.

Suddenly, the "production" and "distribution" costs went to a fraction of what they'd been. That part of the equation went from being a necessary evil to being something that could be bypassed completely (the fact that the music could also be illegally copied and shared at no cost and very little risk of retribution plays a part too, but that's another story). It was now possible to make an album every bit as good, using the same personnel, the same producer, the same engineer, the same everything except for company that stamps out the plastic disks and the big box retailer racking them, and it could be sold at a larger profit to the people who made the music and a lower cost to the people who wanted to buy it.

This is what I was trying to say in my 140 characters. I didn't mean to belittle his choices, about which he knows approximately 10000000x more than I ever will. And I don't want to cut out the editors, the agents, the managers, the typesetters, or any of the people involved in making a book better any more than I'd want to cut out anyone involved in making a record better. Hell, I don't even want to cut out a middleman that the artist happens to like and wants to support. Like I said, I buy all of my music. 

But, given a choice, I'll choose to purchase in whatever way most benefits the artists as opposed to, say, WEA and Wal-Mart.