Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Everyone is in the Middle

There are people to both sides of you. Everyone is in the middle. We’re all part of a continuum.

This is the theme of the book I’m working on right now, a sequel to SAND. The idea is that while we are all looking in one direction —  whether with envy or judgement or longing or disgust — there is someone on the other side of us looking our way with the exact same emotion and with just as much cause.

I played with this theme in HALF WAY HOME, where I pointed out that today’s moral progress will seem slow and obvious to future generations, and at the same time some “modern” behavior of ours will one day appear barbaric. It might be the eating of meat. It could be allowing people to drive cars well past the day the technology existed to revamp our fleets and save hundreds of thousands of lives.

A glance at history suggests that it will be many things. All generations crow about how much better, more inclusive, more enlightened they are than previous generations, and then some facet of their culture seems outlandish just a generation or two hence. Slave-owning American Founders who preached equality and freedom come to mind. The institutional racism and sexism of “The Greatest Generation” does as well.

These are some examples of how we’re in the “middle” of generational moral progress. It’s why we should be careful castigating previous generations, be super careful touting our own, and understand that future generations are going to be horrified at our current behavior.

Being in the middle as individuals means that anything we long for in one direction, there is someone behind us longing for what we have. As writers, it means that everyone agonizing over a lack of sales is sitting on a finished work, which someone with a rough draft can’t imagine. And the person with the rough draft is idolized by someone stuck at 80% for what feels like forever. And that person is a hero to the writer with just an idea and a dream.

In the other direction, being in the middle means that any snubbing we do in one direction, we are making it impossible to unhypocritically be offended by snubbing coming the other way. This means is that if you write science fiction and you make light of those who write erotica, don’t complain when someone mocks your genre. And if you write literary fiction and you mock any of the genres, prepare to hear how yours is a genre as well, one no better than the rest.

Glancing in both directions is useful in making sure we aren’t being assholes, hypocrites, or ingrates.

This idea applies to pretty much all facets of life. But I want to concentrate on writerly stuff. Publishing biz stuff. Because I’ve seen a few areas in the past months where I think we can easily fall prey to looking in only one direction without considering the historical perspective or the fact that we’re all in the middle.

The first is KU, where I’ve watched some of my private FB writing groups express very powerful opinions in both directions. Kindle Unlimited is hurting income for some writers. It’s helping income for others. Personally, I’ll be withdrawing most of my titles from KU because of the unpredictable payment structure of the program, the exclusivity requirement, and the way it pays per percentage read rather than per page. And yet I’m also happy that the program is working for some writers, even if it ends up not working for me. Why?

Because this is just what trad-pubbed authors probably thought about Amazon’s launch of KDP. I’ve seen the following sorts of statements issued by indie authors regarding KU: “There’s a flood of short works. This only benefits a handful of genres. Now everyone thinks they are a writer. People are just slapping stuff up there. Everyone is devaluing their work by getting excited over $1.30 payouts.”

This last complaint is rich considering it often comes from indie authors who launched their careers by employing KDP Select to give their works away for free. But what is really disturbing is that the same denigrations tossed at those embracing this new tool for being discovered and hopefully launching careers sound a lot like the same abuses heaped on indies by non-indies just a few years ago.

Trad authors said we undervalued our works, priced them too low, that we were ruining everything, that certain genres had too many undeserved advantages. Now some indies are saying that about subscription models, 99 cent boxsets, and so on. We took advantage of the tools offered to us to break out. Now we see tools that we deem to be beneath us, and yet others are daring to use them, and we’re as critical of them as others were of us.

It’s similar to how seniors can throw freshmen into bushes — when all seniors were once freshmen who got thrown into bushes. We have magical powers of group-think and self-rationalization that allow us to get away with this. What was true then is different now. Why? Because we’ve moved on, that’s why.

Here’s the thing: KU will be bad for many authors. KU will be the best thing that happens to some authors. What concerns me is that I’ve seen a handful of authors make an effort to burn the entire thing to the ground because they might be in the former camp. This is the same attitude people on the trad side had toward KDP and self-pubbing in general. Make it go away so the world can go back to normal. And by “normal,” they mean that thin slice of time where the world benefited them the most.

Being in the middle means being aware of the times when what you’re saying about someone else is also being said about you. You didn’t like it. Maybe this other person doesn’t either.

I see a lot of fear of change from indies, when change is what made their careers possible. This is the same place that much indie and self-pub bashing came from. Trad authors saw sales decline, advances shrink, offers disappear. They watched their small presses go under or stop payments. What program was to blame? Amazon’s KDP. The very thing that gave many of us careers as writers. Helps to understand their anger, doesn’t it, now that indies feel some of the same? And maybe it helps others understand that we can just as easily become the dinosaurs we made fun of.

Another way we should be wary of what we wish for is the fact that our careers as fiction writers may one day be in doubt. I mean this first on a professional level, as in a group of people who can make a living or supplement their income doing this. It’s not inconceivable that ten or twenty years from now, most people will entertain each other for free, just as a hobby or a past time. If this sounds crazy, keep in mind that it’s probably already true. Facebook and Twitter are little more than self-publishing platforms for ideas, images, videos, gossip, news, chatter. How many hours do people spend creating content for zero pay? How many hours do people spend consuming that content practically for free?

Wattpad, Write-On, and fanfic sites already consume a lot of reading hours. Could this grow and swamp paid reading? Dismissing this is the same as dismissing self-pubbing five years ago. We are all in the middle. Look in the other direction. While you’re overtaking a staid and kludgy machine, the person gaining on you is thinking the same thing.

What about those who seem to take glee in the disintermediation of publishing jobs? Agents are threatened right now, not just by self-pubbing but by the ease with which publishers can scout talent and contact authors directly by noticing a blog, a Twitter account, a self-pub bestseller, a YouTube video, or anything that goes viral. Publishers themselves are sometimes viewed as eventually doomed. I occasionally worry about them. But I worry — I don’t find joy in the prospect.

Why? Because every job that feels completely crucial and irreplaceable tends not to be. Travel agents likely said that no one could sort the time tables, understand the various routes, know which carriers had which amenities, and could do the job as well as they do. The idea that computers will ever write fiction sounds bonkers to many writers, who view themselves as irreplaceable, and yet I can see how it might happen.

In many areas of life, we enter as wide-eyed and vibrant rookies and begrudgingly retire as wizened but worn-down veterans. And it’s always the same: The rookie complains about playing time, says it’s “my time now. Get out of the way, old man, you had your turn.” And that same person is one day a veteran saying, “Slow down, Rook. You’ll get your turn. I paid my dues. Let me have just one more year.”

The intern wants to know why they can’t have a corner office. The senior staff think they should be paid well for doing less than they did in their prime, that they’ve earned it. Just as we often look in only one direction, forgetting to turn around, we also tend to look at our current situation, forgetting where we came from. We are in the middle both in space and in time.

None of this is to say that people can’t have it both ways and embrace the contradiction. If you want to say, “I want what’s best for me, and screw the rest,” that’s perfectly valid. It’s even valid to embrace hypocritical stances and embrace that hypocrisy. But those who are unreformable and unrepentant don’t concern me as much as the incurious do. Because the latter probably wants to know about their own blindspots in order to remedy them. There are good people who make these mistakes. Because these mistakes are damn easy to make.

I know from lots of experience. I make these mistakes every day, and I’ve been thinking on these issues for a very long time. I’m not only guilty of everything mentioned here, I’m guilty of much else that I’m completely unaware of. What I really don’t want to be is someone who thinks they’re on the right side of history, because this just isn’t possible. History has no side. It goes on and on. Today’s mammals are tomorrow’s dinosaurs.

If we can’t prevent that, or even bring ourselves to embrace it, we should at least be aware of it. We should at least take a look around now and then, realize where we are, how we got here, and that everyone is on a similar journey. They might be where we were or where we hope to be, but they’re all us. We’re all the same. We’re all right here in the middle.

 

 

 

30 replies to “Everyone is in the Middle”

Of all the articles and blog posts I’ve read recently on the KU issue, this is one of the most reasoned and something I can only agree with. It’s all too easy for us to fear the change and want to control our destinies, but unless you’re already financially and professionally comfortable, regardless of what’s coming down the river, then the change and fear will always be there. It’s up to us individuals and as a group to decide to look both ways before lashing out, as we really can’t control where this industry is going. A good point well made, Hugh.

Thought-provoking, and possibly part of the key to “adapt and overcome” strategy.

Thanks for the heavy thinking!

Always so reasonable, Hugh. We could use this kind of thoughtful analysis in a ton of arenas, but it’s particularly applicable to publishing. I’m grateful to have my foot in the door and to have started my career at such an opportune time. The key is not to be complacent. The key is to stay in touch with reality and always keep an eye to the ever evolving options. No ostrich will survive!

I was writing an email to a friend who’s considering getting into publishing the other day. I was also following with alarm a post on a writing community about how the payout has gone downhill dramatically for KU borrows.

I found myself writing the following things:

about my publisher:
“… 40 percent of royalties (minus costs, etc….for me that seems to usually work out to $1 per copy sold average earnings, after their cut and the ebook outlets take their cuts”

about Amazon:
“At a price of 2.99, I earn more for a sale thru Amazon — about 2 dollars per copy sold. 99 cent price only earns 35 cents. And a KU borrow earns something over a dollar, but it varies.”

(I still price regularly at 99 cents for a limited time, even though I know I’m not getting much from each sale, by the way.)

Somehow it took time to connect what I had actually written to what I was worrying about. I am getting dozens of borrows a day, all currently earning at least a dollar. Yes, the price varies. But my sales through my ebook publisher? Nothing near that…

Yikes.

I unchecked all the boxes myself. I know you haven’t had the exclusivity restriction, from all I’ve read about you or maybe by you, I forget. But for me, exclusivity is a restraint on trade. Enough said.

The ‘in the middle’ concept is very true, it is the basis for arguments I have with die hard democrats all the time. (No, I am not a republican either) I talk with co-workers who believe in the liberal idea of taxing the rich more, with no idea that to most of the world, they are rich. One guy makes 85k, he has no idea that to most he is rich. Some here make over 100k and think the same way. I make 50k, live frugally, but feel rich. Why? Because I know 50k might be low for NY, but is is higher than a lot of other people out there.
I also agree with your senior staff thiking they deserve more. See it all the time in civil service, they will say “I have given 20 years to this job, they owe me”. NO, they don’t. You didn’t give 20 years to anyone, you stayed here for the pay and benifits, if you had a better offer you would have left years ago.
Entitlement, the downfall of civilizations.

Hear, hear, Hugh! Good words!

I’m delighted that KU works for some writers. Just because it hasn’t worked for me so far, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work at all. Some authors are making much more than ever before.

Personally, my titles haven’t made much headway in KU. I’ve got a major push coming on them during Thanksgiving week – perhaps that will convince me to put a check mark in the boxes again. If not, I’ll go wide. Again. Not because I think that KU won’t work – heck, I have some wide distribution titles enrolled at Scribd through D2D! It will be because it didn’t work for me.

But, for those it works for…Yayyyy!

Hugh, this is a poetic and illuminating way of seeing all of this. I’ve been watching authors talk about sales and income dropping since the fall of 2013, and we’ve all been trying new things. I think free, 99 cents and box sets have flooded the market and readers have Kindles fulls of books they haven’t read yet. Still, they’re looking for a great new read that demands their attention. So am I. We need to find other ways to give value. I’ve been writing for 25 of my 35 years; it’s something I’ll never walk away from. Yes, the selling part get stressful sometimes, but this post gave me some needed perspective and even reassurance that there are always new and different ways to do things. Thank you.

“No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” Animal Farm, George Orwell

The funny thing about “can a computer ever create fiction” is that, much like “can a computer play chess”, it creates this moving goalpost that shifts every time technology threatens to overtake it.

“Can a computer play chess?”
“Yes.”
“Well…can a computer play chess WELL?”
“Yes.”
“Well…can a computer BEAT A HUMAN?”
“Yep.”
“Well…what about THE BEST HUMAN CHESS-PLAYER ON EARTH?”
“Not yet.”
“See? A computer will never be able to play chess.”

So right now the question seems to be, “Can a computer create fiction?”

And the answer is: “Yes.”

Computers can generate ideas and procedurally-generate fantastic worlds and–if you’re familiar at all with Dwarf Fortress–you know they can craft these worlds over the span of thousands of years to a degree of minute precision that makes even Tolkien look weak. So then the question moves. “But a-ha! Can they WRITE fiction?”

And the answer again is, “Sure.” A simple google search will find you dozens of simple randomized story-generating programs. And it only takes a quick look at twitter spambots to know that computers are getting scarily close to being able to write human-approximate written content.

So the question moves again: “Ahhh, but can a computer write fiction *WELL*? Can a computer write GOOD PROSE?”

And the answer is a sly, smiling, “Not yet.”

And when that answer very soon becomes a “Yes,” the question will move again.

And of course, you can point out, “But these computers that generate fiction don’t actually know what they’re doing. They’re just dumb machines following code.” But then you open yourself up all kinds of squicky philosophical/epistemological debates about the nature of human knowledge and whether we, as human beings, are *REALLY* any different.

And this is where I tend to land. I think we give ourselves too much credit. We are very complicated machines that respond to stimuli in our environment. If we had true autonomy, people who want to exercise more would exercise more. People who want to eat better would simply start eating better. Addicts would quit at the first compulsion to do so. And everyone would just “decide” to be happy.

The ugly annual spectacle that is New Year’s Resolutions calls into question the concept of Free Will for me. So where does that leave us? Largely pre-programmed and just following our code.

Absolutely true that we are largely pre-programmed. Cognitive science tells us more and more with each new study just how much of our presumed “logical” responses to information are actually hard-wired reactions to stimuli – mostly emotional stimuli.

No matter how evolved we think we are, we’re still largely following our lizard brains. Our higher processing gets kicked out every time the lizard brain – that old eat or be eaten, fight or flight system – gets activated. Which is pretty often. Did you just hear a threat to your world view on Fox News? (or NPR, whichever way you roll.) Run away! Run away! Lizard brain takes over, and your ability to separate fact from fiction basically vanishes. You retreat into “protect the system” mode – kind of like the old Blue Screen of Death.

Makes fiction writing, where you can be open and deliberate about the reactions you hope to evoke, seem like a pretty good way of influencing the world.

Isn’t this reductionism, Hugh? The obvious counter-example would be those who make goals and stick to them. Granted, they are the vast minority but we all do it on the micro level every day. Things like waking up early when we don’t feel like it or sacrificing our needs to put someone else’s first. The prefrontal cortex, though outmatched by computing speed, can actually compete with and override the amygdala.

Back when I competed in martial arts, I had to ignore my “lizard brain” and trust my training. Yes, I felt like throwing up before every match, but forced myself to go through with the fight anyway. Just told myself I could throw up afterward. :-)

I think this calls in the question of whether you have a vision as a creative writer.

If you have a dream of a better (or at least different) tomorrow, then there’s something to fight for. That goal will change through the process of trying to attain it, but it will keep you moving forward.

If what you’re doing is trying to hold ground, and to demand that things remain the way they are today, you’ll lose the war no matter how many battles you win, because the earth itself is shifting under your feet, and you can’t stop a seismic shift (no matter how slowly it occurs) with legislation.

That lack of vision in the face of success is the reason (for example) there is no organized left in the US anymore. Instead we have a coalition of people fighting to hold on to a dwindling set of “rights” won long ago. The current usurpation of capitalism by technology also won’t last forever, and one day the descendants of the modern tech-barons will watch it all collapse, just as the publishers are today. (It’s easy to forget that the publishers were forged into existence a very similar “publish everything” environment for print books that existed back in the late 1800s).

The ability to never give up fighting for new ideas is what drives progress. It’s the reason why Stan Lee can still get up and go to work every day in his 80s, even if he’s no longer creating concepts as powerful as he did in his 40s.

Great post, Hugh.
In the past, writers couldn’t even get their work seen by the public if they couldn’t get through the system of gatekeepers (agents, editors, publishers). We all complained about the heartbreak of being rejected over and over and never getting a chance to be read.

Now, we can publish without the gatekeepers’ permission. Now ANYONE can be read. Problem solved, right? Wrong. Now, we complain about all the poseurs and hacks who are crowding out our works of singular genius, or railing against the latest changes in Amazon’s algorithms. “How can we expect to make a living, with all these factors working against us?” I’ve heard many people say on forums. Yet, just a few years ago, we couldn’t even publish our work unless an editor/publisher/agent gave it a blessing. How quickly we take for granted the opportunities we have now.

Comedian Louis CK has a great bit about how “Everything is awesome and no one is happy.” If you haven’t seen it, Google it. Trying to make a living as a writer is a bitch. Guess what: it always has been. But it has never been easier to publish than it is now. It has never been easier to hold a book in your hand that you wrote, and to share it with your friends, and maybe even sell it to a few strangers. Everything is awesome!

Like you, Hugh, I admit I fall prey to these feelings myself. But I try to remember that whenever someone takes the time to read my work instead of the nearly infinite number of things they could have done with their time, from washing the car to playing World of Warcraft to streaming “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on Netflix, they have given me a wonderful gift.

Couldn’t have said it better. And I know, because I tried!

When I see how quickly we’ve gone from being thrilled to have the opportunity to publish to the expectation that we be treated as equals to the consternation that we aren’t reaching as many readers as others, I see progress. Amazing progress. In just a few years, we’ve gone from being denied anything to expecting everything.

Progress. Now we just need to learn to make our demands in reasonable tones and to log our complaints without whining. :)

The real writers were right. And always have been: technology is destroying culture.
De Lillo said it all 30 years ago. This point is well above the heads of everyone here. I make it purely for my own satisfaction, barbarians.

Now scurry back to your sales units. Where were you? Ah yes, “It waz a very dark and so very stormy night when Princess the detective heard a scary shot ring out . . .”

I don’t think this is about compassion or seeing it from the bloke’s perspective, it’s about business and doing what works. Clearly, KU is having a massively negative effect on everyone.
The I Ching has this to say:
“There is danger here of formation of a separate faction on the basis of
personal and egotistic interests. Such factions, which are exclusive and,
instead of welcoming all men, must condemn one group in order to unite the
others, originate from low motives and therefore lead in the course of time to
humiliation.”
If you can’t trust 5,000 year old wisdom, who can you trust? The reality is that a free and open market works and provides an opportunity for everyone to have a shot and make coin. Does the subscription model help or hinder that basic precept?

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