Monday, May 12, 2014

Artificial Barriers to Entry, Part I: Twitter, the SAT, and Peanuts

It's become something of a spring tradition.  Every year, a few weeks before DFWcon, I watch my Facebook feed fill with writers testing out pitches and business cards, and my Twitter followers list blossom with egg icons - aspiring writers acquiescing to the Social Media Mandate.  I love it.

But I know a lot of people don't.  And I admit that sometimes I'm one of them.  Being around real live earth-persons makes me feel like a million bucks - it's the biggest thrill, honestly - but email and Twitter and Facebook and blogging easily reduce me to tears.  I know I'm not alone in that.  "Why do we have to do this social media garbage?" cries that reliable wailing and gnashing of teeth.  "This has NOTHING to do with the quality of my writing, but agents keep saying they won't even consider me if I don't do it!"

This is an almost perfect echo of what I hear in my day job (well, night job), doing test prep classes for high school students.  "Why do I have to take the SAT?" the little darlings keen in frustration.  "This has NOTHING to do with how much I know, but colleges won't even consider me if I don't do it!"

And you know, I think these two mournful choruses really share the same origin.  A hundred years ago, the SAT and ACT didn't exist, and social media was in its dots-and-dashes infancy.  (Though Face-book was not unknown.)  You got your book out to the world the good old-fashioned way: by sending your manuscript to a publisher.  And as for getting into college - well, what could be easier than sitting your Greek and Latin exams, producing your certificate of good moral character, and waiting for your acceptance letter?

Sounds like a simpler, friendlier time, doesn't it?

Well, here is a question: did you ever see Charlie Brown's All-Stars?  It's a Peanuts special from the '60s, and the short story is this: Charlie Brown has the chance to get his baseball team real uniforms, and entry into a real league, and (naturally) jumps at the chance - until he's told that the league doesn't allow girls or dogs.  If he wants his team to go pro, he's going to have to ditch some of his teammates.

Who don't always appreciate his managerial style.
And it seems to me that the academic and publishing worlds of old were much the same way: it is easy to miss them today, because it's easy to forget that they were very exclusive realms.  And part of the reason why writers and students today are having to jump so many extra hurdles is because there are so very many MORE of us now than there used to be - because now girls and dogs and gays and minorities and blue-collar people and pink-collar people and no-collar people have entered the good ol' boys' ring, stiffening the competition for what are still a limited number of top-choice seats.

And when there are 50,000 people applying for 1,000 places, you do have some extra work to do in whittling them down.  It's not enough anymore to just toss out the ones with rotten grades or lousy spelling.  That still leaves 20,000 solid competitors.  So you have to start looking at other things.  Throw out everyone who doesn't do extracurriculars.  Then put in a standardized test, and axe everyone who fails it.  What does that leave, 5,000?  Okay, new rule: we want to see volunteer work.  Tell them to start clothing the hungry and feeding the naked and neutering shelter-puppies on the weekends, or they're out.  And if too many students start making it through all those hoops, I promise you that they will invent a new one, or make the existing ones even smaller.

Which isn't to say that the hoops are all completely arbitrary.  For example, a successful writer is going to have to be able to sell themselves and their book - so it's reasonable to see whether and how they've made a start on that. 

"So, Tex," you may now resentfully sigh, "you're saying that the New World Order is good and right and just, and Twitter is the price we pay for diversity and freedom."

Not at ALL, my hypothetical friend - not at all, and I will tell you why.  But let me pause here for the moment, and resume on Wednesday.

In the meantime, here is a question: for those of you with skin in either game (publishing or college admissions), what do you reckon we could do to level the playing field?  How can we more fairly assess the applicants - or should we quit squabbling over who gets a piece and focus instead on enlarging the pie?

So they have one man on first, but if they think they can beat us, they'd better try. 
I hate it when they try.


  1. I know you will be shocked, but I have an opinion. ;-) Let's stop teaching kids that they are failures unless they attend a short-list of colleges. One size does NOT fit all. Encourage kids to find out who they are and allow them to pursue a post-high school path that will make them a happy adult. Once you eliminate the people who are only applying because "that is what you do" - well, things will look better.

    I don't know what to do about publishing hoops. We're all screwed.

    1. Haha, your optimism is refreshing!

      But yes, I kinda wonder if a lot of this didn't kick off back when so many of the good livable "fresh out of high school" blue-collar jobs shriveled up and died. You can't support a family by working second shift at the screen door factory anymore, so suddenly college is the one magical gateway to a decent life, so now we're forcing everybody through it, regardless of interests or aptitude. (And we're asking students to make $50,000 decisions at 18, largely without any apprenticeship, internship, or gap-year programs to let them get a taste of their intended career. It's all kinds of broken.)

  2. No kidding! The path to publication is a lot like the path to college admittance. Curse this globalized meritocracy for creating so much competition!

    1. I know, right? Clearly, the only solution is to KILL EVERYONE.

      ... you know what, that'd make a pretty good supervillain backstory. Mass anthrax poisoning to get his son into Harvard. Why has no-one thought of this?!

    2. What makes you think I haven't thought of that? I got into college, didn't I? :)

  3. Oh jeeze. I'm with cUXK4IIcg9b47Xi1xnOW__aRXGLe7A.E9ng; we're all screwed. (Kidding, kidding. I actually think this is a great perspective and a very smart post. Looking forward to part dos.)

    1. It's gonna be all right, Annie! We're good enough, we're smart enough, and doggone it, if we play our cards right, Ben will say nice things about us when he does his first interview with the Today Show!

  4. This is so true.
    I was actually hoping that with self-publishing, traditional publishers would consider taking more risks. Self-pudding gave readers a shelf away from the norm and things trad pudders would have turned down were eventually picked up.
    But then self -pubbing boomed and I dunno, everything seems like a risk now! Still, I think it would be great if books outside what's classed as safe and conventional were pushed and marketed a bit more. I know it's a financial risk and that's a shame but playing it safe means readers and bookshops will find themselves over saturated with the same genres and themes and so on.
    Like with 50 shades, that was practically a self-pubbed project and then trads got hold of it, marketed like crazy and then erotica boomed. Erotica was now in, everyone's looking for erotica...and then everyone is tired of erotica (commercially speaking). It's a shame things work like that but at the same time it's great because you get people like Suzanne Collins who wrote the Hunger Games ages ago and then suddenly things worked out fantastically for her when dystopians were in. But as with 50, now dystopians are considered "dead".

    Why do trads genre binge like this?

    The same can be said for college (uni in the UK). Some subjects are binged on like english and psychology and then so many graduate and then are at war with one another so they have to then better themselves and do a masters or a doctorate (because that's what makes you special and puts you above the others).

    Before you know it you're 28 years old, qualified and have probably lost your love for the subject after jumping through all those hoops. And now you have a jaded psychologist or an english teacher who hates teaching it. *shiver*

    When you tell people they HAVE to do something in THIS PARTICULAR WAY in order to get somewhere, you don't just create a rat race with far too many people competing for the same thing, you create something that overwhelms everything else and crushes diversity and choice.

    So yeah, I pretty mush agree with cUXK4IIcg9b47Xi1xnOW__aRXGLe7A.E9ng, let's stop stifling kids and writers and start opening some new doors! There could be greatness behind any one of them...

    1. Oh, you are SO right, ma'am. This part, right here--

      When you tell people they HAVE to do something in THIS PARTICULAR WAY in order to get somewhere, you don't just create a rat race with far too many people competing for the same thing, you create something that overwhelms everything else and crushes diversity and choice.

      --I'm gonna put that under my pillow (right next to my 38 special.)

      But with regard to your point about self-publishing - I don't think it's made traditional publishers suddenly say "let's be bold and daring and avant-garde!" If anything, I think it's made them even more risk-averse. "Hey, awesome, now there's this whole amateur-hour proving ground out there. Let's just let all the little pirahnas duke it out in the chum-bucket, and then we can hand down a contract to whoever comes out on top."

      It doesn't always work that way, of course. A number of successful self-pubbers have looked up at the hand proffered from on high and replied with a finger. But it does seem to fit with the Big 5's increasingly Hollywood-esque business model - which is to say, putting all the monetary eggs in a few huge blockbuster baskets, and cutting away the midlist.

      Which is bad, because then you have decisions being made by committee - and more importantly, by the marketing and sales aspect of said committee, who tend to go by formula. If the nerds are throwing beaucoup bucks at every movie with Hugo Weaving / Idris Elba / Benedict Cumberbatch / Peter Jackson, then clearly they need to be doing *every movie*. (Even when they really, really don't.)

      I think we tend to think along the same lines with the school thing. Johnny Depp can recover from The Lone Ranger - but a kid with a "worthless" degree might be ruined for life. So we want to make really sure s/he gets it right on the first try. So we look to see what's been successful in the past - doctor, lawyer, engineer, computer science - and push them in that direction... because it's easier than admitting that we have no way to know what's going to be in demand when they actually get OUT of school all those years later.

      It's a hell of a thing, ain't it?

    2. Oh gosh....I just had this image of Trad Pubbers watching The Writing Games where indies battle it out and whoever comes out on top gets to sit with the big guys.

      "May the odds be forever in your favour...or ours.Ours is good too."


  5. For the record, I would like to state that I followed you because Twitter told me to, though I'm glad it did.
    Let's throw these things into this already great mix;. bringing back with great abandon all of the technical and factory jobs that were shipped overseas or dale, allowing a good-living for an honest day's work. Niave argument, you say? Well, tell me all about it. What about immigration and how we treat "them" (biting my tongue here), then there are tax incentives (the right and left will come to your page for THAT). Then the lobbyists for guns, cow meat (cancer-laden is the new T-bone special) will make this post positively viral.
    Well, I'll leave it at that and come back on Wednesday. Great and thought-provoking post.

    1. I'm SO glad you do what Twitter tells you to - it is a pleasure to make your e-quaintance!

      And yeah, I think you're on to something there. Underneath all those very-disparate issue, maybe we really just have the one underlying problem: thanks to automation, globalization, and population increases, we now have far more people than we have work for them to do. And the old model where everybody finds a job, does the job, and gets a living wage in return is really falling apart. Hopefully we will figure out how to change that before we really hit the skids.

  6. What a timely reminder that we should be building our online profile, Tex.

    There's an interesting defense of agents and publishers (and academic peer reviewers, while we're at it) here. In the comments there's also a fantastic video of some pop star talking about how he became more crap once all the people around him became 'yes men.' (While also talking about his friendship with Bill Gates at some Oxford lunch.)

    For the top few desired positions, yes, it's an extreme path. Probably not all that mentally healthy either.

    I'd have deeper words on the subject, but I'm too busy building my online profile. And watching beatbox videos. xx

    1. Haha, anything I can do to keep you on track, ma'am! (Though if your to-do list looks anything like mine, it's really just that one single, forever hopeful bullet point: "get crap straight".)

      Loving that link, though, and I absolutely agree. I think it's visible in the work of people like George Lucas and M. Night Shyamalan, too - you know, where the early stuff is AWESOME, because they were actively being checked and challenged by other people. And then, you know... not so much anymore. I don't know if this is a constant peril in the beatboxing world too, but I trust you to find out!

    2. New todo list:

      * find crap straightener
      * get crap straight


  7. Yes! We shouldn't get discouraged! We need to spend money and time on our craft in order to be competitive. I totally agree with your main point.
    However, I think the Olympics metaphor breaks down in one crucial way: scarcity.
    Olympic medals are scarce, so wider access to good nutrition, training, and the Olympic games themselves means we have more potential contestants for the same number of prizes. That means records keep getting broken, but (sigh) my chances of winning a gold medal for Vault-Curling just keep getting smaller. (Oh God, what am I going to do with my Vault-Curling Tabbard now? That thing was expensive!)
    But in the realm of books (and entertainment, culture, and the service industry to be more and more general) the number of prizes is growing as fast as the population of people with access. Of course there can only be one Number One, but as far as making a living doing this, I'm sure that the entire interconnected (increasingly English-speaking) global metaculture supports more professional writers than the court of a medieval English monarch.
    To pick a new metaphor, yes, there are more people at the dinner table, but this is a potluck. More guests means more food, not less. So invite your friends!

    1. True fact! The book world is one of those arenas that's lucky enough to have elastic demand and near-damn-infinite supply. Not so sure about the "making a living" part, though. I mean, as the supply keeps growing, and the supply *channels* keep widening (hello, KDP!), it gets easier and easier for competition to drive prices down until "99 cents or free" is the new standard. I don't think for a second that that's going to be some absolute universal end-point, but it does loop back around to the idea of "those who are willing and able to work for free in the hopes of someday Making It, and those who aren't / can't."