A Problem of Scale

Eric Flint, author of the time displacement/alternate history 1632 series, has written a really interesting essay in support of his original comments on the Hugos and the Puppy mess. In his attempts to clarify a point that was apparently misunderstood in the original post, he has a lot to say about the actual size of the genre fiction audience.

I feel like this is an important point that is often overlooked, not just in this brouhaha but in general. We aren’t really wired to grasp the size and shape of things as large as an industry, or a global community, or the internet, or even smaller communities within the internet.

This inability to grasp a gigantic scale is why people outside the industry like to ask authors they’ve never heard of but just been introduced to questions like, “What have you written that I’d have heard about?”

It’s why those of us who hang out on websites like Twitter, Tumblr, or Reddit that act as a sort of mega-community have a tendency to imagine that the feeds we watch reflect the website as a whole, which is what leads to the assumption that anything we see all the time must be well-known in an objective sense, and any opinion that is shared by a majority of those around us must be widespread.

It’s also why, absent a little reflection, so many people conclude that any opinion with which they disagree that has any kind of penetration at all must be unfairly propped up somehow. Because it doesn’t reflect the composition of the community as a whole (as extrapolated by the view of our own virtual living rooms) but it keeps cropping up all the same.

I think that at a baseline, Sad Puppy founder Larry Correia started out working on the assumption that it should be impossible for an author to enjoy his level of success without being, objectively speaking, A Successful Author. And if someone is objectively A Successful Author, this should be recognized in objective fashion. Awards, plaudits, praise. If he’s not getting them, and/or he sees people who are not doing the things he’s doing (and thus, not legitimately Successful Authors) getting them, then he can conclude that something is wrong.

If you read the blogs of his self-professed allies like Brad Torgersen and Sarah Hoyt, you’ll come away with a very definite sense that they see themselves as playing to the real mass audience. Torgersen in particular has talked about his idea that the SF/F audience is shrinking because the mass audience is over here (where he is) and yet people are writing stuff over there (where he’s not).

Flint’s blog post, although it’s not specifically addressing those claims, serves as… well, I was going to say a great counter, but the thing is, Torgersen’s claim isn’t one that actually needs to be countered. It needs to be dismissed. It’s not just wrong in its conclusion, but mistaken in its premise.

I said in my previous post about the Puppies that I hope they wake up one day and realize that they’re writing to a niche. I don’t say this as a criticism, as I’m also a niche writer. I think it’s one of the smartest things you can do in this world.


An indie author I follow recently tweeted the realization that her furry space opera stories outsell the rest by three to one. If you’re viewing the marketplace as winner-take-all and you’re seeing supply and demand in the simplistic, one dimensional terms that many people view it and above all if you’re not contemplating how vast the SF/F marketplace is, you have to conclude one of two things from this: either she is lying or cheating somehow and her stories aren’t really that popular, or there’s three times as much demand for furry fiction as for conventional space opera.

If you reject the second one as not true, then you’re left with the first.

Neither possibility is actually true, of course. The real truth is that the marketplace is bigger and more complicated than either of those conclusions allow for. But if you’re dead set on thinking of it in small, one-dimensional terms, then the only possible conclusion is that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.  This kind of small-time thinking is at the root of both the Puppies’ and the Gators’ discontent.

What’s really happening, of course, is that the furry stories are serving an under-served niche. In the mass market, every space opera story is competing with every space opera story… although the market is so big that in truth, every space opera story is competing for the right to compete with every space opera story, and we could really add a bunch for iterations of “competing for the right to compete” to that.

But if you tell a story that few people are telling, if you put something in your stories that’s hard to find elsewhere, if you address your story to a smaller audience, but one that has a hard time finding what they’re looking for elsewhere… why, you can clean up.

People who squabble over a piece of “the pie” in general terms aren’t likely to get anywhere, and if they do, it’ll be in part by accident. The mass market audience has room for a few big winners and a lot of runner-ups who don’t really go anywhere. But if you realize that “the pie” is actually a bunch of different pies, it’s just a matter of finding a pie you like that has gone overlooked in the general rush for the more obvious choices.

Hoyt, Torgersen, Correia, Michael Z. Williamson, all of those ilk… they aren’t writing for the mass audience. They’re writing towards particular audiences, seeking particular things. And they are doing—by all indications—pretty okay with it. Good for them.

The problem is, they don’t have any real idea how much pie there is in the world out there. They don’t understand that it’s possible (and inevitable) for authors to do the same thing they’ve done but in a different direction (writing from and towards a queer perspective, writing from and towards a feminist perspective, et cetera) because they don’t think of what they’ve done as anything other than “writing quality books that people will want to read”.

They don’t realize that it’s some people who see their books as quality and want to read them. They have no concept of how big and diverse a group people really is, or what an uphill battle it would be to compete for the attention of people generally.

And in fairness to them, nobody really does.

But some of us have at least recognized that we don’t know this.