Friday, June 13, 2014

Artificial Barriers to Entry, Part III: Astroturf and Rocket Ships

(Very-belatedly continued from Part I and Part II!)

All right, sports-fans - here is a fun fact.

Between 1928 and 1972, India won 7 out of 10 Olympic gold medals in field hockey.
Between 1976 to 2012, India won 1 out of 10.

Quickly, Robin - to the history books!  What caused this abrupt decades-long crash from a country that dominated this sport for half a century?  War?  Military coup?  Michael Phelps?

No, as The Atlantic reports. 1976, the Olympics switched from natural turf to synthetic, which is far more expensive. All the Indian players who practiced on fields and grass patches were learning skills no longer suited to international competition, and only the communities with the money and will to build a synthetic field could train viable contenders. India has won only a single field hockey medal in the 40 years since it last competed on natural turf, priced out of a sport that had once brought it so much Olympic glory.
Not in the budget for the Hyderabad YMCA.
This story is unquestionably about money, which we talked a lot about in Part II.  But I also think it makes a good bridge to what I'd like to look at today: namely, how similar practices in the publishing industry end up likewise passively excluding entire groups of people.

So let's say you've trained up to the top of your authorial game.  You put in the 10 years of practice, wrote your million words of crap.  What you have in your hands is a gold-star manuscript: fresh, gripping, original, and immaculately edited.  With a spring in your step and a flutter in your heart, you decide to start querying agents.  What happens next?

Well, if you're like my one friend, you get a pile of effusive, glowing rejections, gushing about how much they love the story but "have no idea where they'd send it" because the one publisher they'd normally submit to "already bought their lesbian novel for the year."  (Which is a hell of a thing, considering your story is a straight-up thriller.)

If you're like my other friend, you shelve your dreams of a Mesoamerican fantasy that celebrates your origins, because Big Publishing is only interested if your book is loaded with gold and skin and feathers and the blood of human sacrifices.

If you're like my third friend, you sit quietly with your fresh fiction and your budding blog, and wonder whether you should even show your face on the Internet at all.

And actually, I'd like to stop and showcase her for a moment, because hers is a voice I don't think we hear very often. With her gracious permission, please say hello (again!) to my good buddy Shay E. Dee:

I hugely encourage you to watch her whole video, because she's warm and fun and real (and braver than I am, with her fearless vlogging self!), but also because her message is much bigger and broader than this little snippet I've transcribed here:
Even if you're looking just for an agent – you do tend to go around, and you will find, generally speaking, that there are a lot of fair [i.e. white] people in the publishing industry.  I don't know if it means anything, but you do sit down and question what that even means, and because of that, you then question whether you even fit in there – if you should even be doing that.
I'm sure agents out there don't really care, that they just want a book to represent and sell and make billions. I'm sure color doesn't really come into it. But then, if it doesn't, then... why is it like that?
And I just can't even tell you guys how hard I think we need to be listening, here.  Shay isn't Daniel José Older or N.K. Jemisin or Junot Diaz or any one of the hundreds of lesser-known writers who have hit the Straight White Wall of the literary world face-first and made it their mission to help break it down.  Shay is just starting out.  So when she speaks, what you're hearing is the voice of a writer who's brand-new - so new she hasn't even seriously started querying yet - and already wondering if she's not supposed to be here.

And that is a damned shame.  (She's not wrong, either - if you haven't been to a writers conference lately, scope out the AAR directory.  It won't take you long to see the pattern.)

So why IS it like that?  Why is it that decades after the Civil Rights movement, the Stonewall Riots, the ADA act, Cesar Chavez, Oprah Winfrey, and Captain Planet, that the traditional publishing industry is still so very... traditional?  Didn't we get the memo from Sesame Street and the Super Friends?  Shouldn't we have our demographic crap straight by now?

Well, here is a thought.  (Which will be illustrated through the sci-fi/fantasy facet of the publishing industry, since that's the one I know best.  Relevant fact: the Hugos are the SFF equivalent of the Oscars, given every year to a broad swath of authors, artists, editors, and other spec-fic publishing pros.  The statue is a suggestively-shaped rocket ship instead of a naked golden ubermensch, because that's how we roll.)

Observation I:  traditional publishing is something of a closed loop.  Authors are also agents.  Editors are also authors.  From what I've seen of the business so far, it's fairly rare to find someone who only wears a single hat - and rarer still to find someone who's never worked outside their current role.

WorldCon 1956 - New York.  Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and others in attendance.
Segregation is the law of the land.
Photo from

Observation II:  this closed loop is also a relatively small one.  Go to half a dozen conferences and conventions in your state, and I guarantee you will see the same people over and over and over again.  And this effect can only be a million times more potent in New York, still the Dyson Sphere of the American publishing industry.

WorldCon 1978 - Phoenix.  George R.R. Martin's first novel nominated for a Hugo.
Segregation over; indoor smoking still the norm.
Photo from
Observation III:  this small, closed loop also makes it very, very easy to "hire from within."  Whether that's editors taking a preferential look at a short story submission they received from an author they met at a room party or an agent taking on an intern who was recommended to them over lunch with colleagues, there are a huge number of job openings and opportunities that never leave this tiny, enormously social world.

WorldCon 1992 - Orlando.  Bill Clinton newly elected; ADA act is two years old.
Isaac Asimov died earlier in the year, but won a Hugo anyway.
Photo from
Observation IV:  it's human nature to want to work with people who "get you".  Editors buy stories that agree with their vision of what good fiction looks like - which are more likely to be written by authors who share their vision of what the world looks like - who are more likely to have cultural and political kinship with the agents and editors who ultimately pick them up.  This is not necessarily a product of active, hateful prejudice.  This is an ingrained tendency that flourishes in an enormously subjective industry - with hugely discriminatory results.

(And I wish like hell that I could use this spot to post a clip of Hank Hill hiring a fellow white guy who comments on his Dallas Cowboys calendar over a Hispanic woman who couldn't pick Troy Aikman out of a lineup.  Go take 20 minutes to watch the "Junkie Business" episode of King of the Hill - it's a classic.)

Worldcon 2013 - San Antonio.  Women are well-represented at the Hugos this year:
Seanan McGuire, Mary Robinette Kowal, Elizabeth Bear, and others are honored.
Photo from

And so we end up here: with a WorldCon 2013 group photo that's almost as monochromatic as its 1956 counterpart.

But the other thing I want to emphasize with all these pictures is how little torch-passing has actually happened in these 57 years.  See that 1956 picture up top?  Robert Silverberg won a Hugo that year for Most Promising New Author.  Wanna know who did stand-up at WorldCon 2013?  Yes indeedily

And the young lady smoking in the 1978 photo is Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who's now a consulting editor at Tor Books (a Big Publisher for us spec-fic folks.)  Did you know that she was excommunicated from her church for supporting the 1980 Equal Rights Amendment for women?  I didn't until I sat down to write this post, and yet her story and her photo up there illustrate these two points perfectly:

1.  If it feels like the face of publishing hasn't changed since the Mad Men days, it's because in many cases we are still literally looking at the same faces.

2.  Older faces don't necessarily mean older ideas - but it's worth remembering that they did grow up in a world with different social norms and expectations, and that can still be reflected in the stories they choose to write, the books they choose to publish, and the people they choose to work with.

"Good job, Tex," you may here reply. "It's taken you 640 words to define 'good ol' boys club.'"

I know, right?!  I thought that was pretty damned efficient of me!  (Trust me: if brevity is the soul of wit, then we epic fantasy writers are its ever-churning lower intestine.)

But here's the thing, guys: this thing, this glacially slow passing of the industry baton?  This is not just a temporary inconvenience.  This is not just Tiger Woods feeling conspicuous at the country club.  This really has, is having, and will continue to have a huge impact on whose voices we hear, and how loudly they have to scream to be heard.  I'd like to look at that next time - because the more people know about these professional herd instincts of ours and their consequences, the better-equipped we all are to help move things in a better direction.  (Optimism, Annie - I promise it's coming!)

If you could eat at Luly's with one of the following, would it be A) Jesus, B) Muhammad, or C) Golda Meir?


  1. Great post! An excellent distillation of how people who are not racists or sexists can still end up running a racist or sexist institution.

    But I think the lifespan of this particular institution is ending soon. First there's the procession of generations (people who grew up watching captain planet are now in their thirties), then there's the changing economic climate, what with Amazon and the interwebs and all, and finally we've got the fact that America no longer equals the world. Give it some time, and America won't even equal the Anglosphere. The American publishing industry produces some great stuff, and as an Anglophone it's still my best bet for reaching readers, but SO SPEAKS THE ORACLE ON THE BALKANS: America's days as cultural superpower are numbered.

    And that's a good thing for me anyway. I like Bollywood and J-pop. :)

    Do we have any other reasons for optimism? Or ways to fix the system before the invisible hand wraps its frigid fingers around the necks of American publishing industry?

    1. Oooh - that's a provocative thesis you've got there. Speak, O Oracle of the Balkans! To what do you attribute this future shift? Is America declining, or is the rest of the world stepping up? Is this levelling of the playing field due to the likes of Kickstarter, Smashwords, and Twitter, or something else?

      (I think we do have reason to be optimistic, but I don't know enough yet to proclaim that This Is So. A worthy topic for a future podcast!)

  2. Wow! what a post Tex, and I must say, as interesting as the lady was in the YouTube video, I also found her to be quite attractive... *shifty eyes*

    I never thought about how I'd feel at conventions, and to be honest, these thoughts never plagued me much in my earlier years either. When I was writing back then, there was less focus on social media; a writer's face wasn't so prominent, but then, neither was the internet.

    And that brings me round to Dan's question:

    "Do we have any other reasons for optimism?"

    When you have hash tags like #weneeddiversebooks trending on Twitter, you know people are out there listening. When you get people up in arms about white washed covers, you know people are listening.
    People are listening because people have voices on the internet that would usually go unheard and that's great.

    I hope, though, like the hash tag, it's not something that's just trending right now. I also hope it won't create an environment fit for token authors and characters just so other's can say "no no, we're diverse....seeeee!"

    I also worry about people becoming toooo PC. I've been called racist over the internet for saying black people generally need to use skin-lotion (not to say a person of colour can't be racist) but I'm telling you, it was an odd moment for me. And so I don't want people to be so strained by the idea of diversity that they worry about coming across racist at every angle, or that others are coming across racist.
    For example, a weird one is describing skin colour and eye shape.

    I don't want people pausing so much with their pen that they're like "oh shit, oh shit...f**k it. This is too hard. I DON'T WANT TO OFFEND!!!"
    What I mostly want is for people to embrace the new. MISTAKES will be made, and you know what? That's ok. Intention is key here.
    My Dad who was born in the 1940's still calls black people coloured and he's black. I asked him why he does that, and he said "because that's what we are called." - yeah when HE was 20!
    His intention isn't to be racist, it's just something he's used to.

    And that's really what we're trying to do here, isn't it? Shed what we're used to?

    1. Ah, Shay - your words are like Gatorade for my parched brain. I love it!

      And for what it's worth, I'm right there with you - but I DO think what we're seeing here (with the demand for diversity) is a profound sea change, and not just a flash in the pan. Because the people who have been traditionally underserved by pop culture at large are gathering online in greater numbers, voting with their dollars (and pounds, and rupees!), and making much bigger waves than anyone could before. Hell, the uproar about "The Last Airbender"s whitewashed casting is 5 years old now, but is going strong and bigger than ever. That is so encouraging to me!

      I do agree that it'd be a terribly sad, limited world if we could only write about ourselves, or people like us (because isn't the point of fiction to get inside the mind of someone who ISN'T you?) But in the long run, I'm not worried about us becoming overly PC, because like... you know how we're generally not scared of writing heroic hetero white guys? I think that's A) because we've seen a MILLION of them already, so have a pretty good idea about it, and B) there are a MILLION of them already, so even if we totally pants it up, it's not like little white boys are going to suffer for lack of representation or role models. I think it's good for us to worry about being racist (sexist, homophobic, etc.), because it's an acknowledgment that we don't have enough of these other fictional representations, that we aren't naturally well-equipped to write about people we don't know very well - and consequently, that we have to learn and better ourselves and really TRY, because there are real people's feelings on the line, and consequences for messing up. Yes, that can lead to some extra-sensitivity (that skin lotion thing is blowing my mind!) - but given how far and how long the pendulum was pulled back into Actual Hard-Coded Racism territory, I don't think it's realistic to drop that sucker and expect it to stop dead in the middle, without ever swinging over to the other side.

      TL;DR: a little fear is good, I think, because it's historically been far, far too easy to not worry or care about it at all.

    2. Very good points. The fear is good, it's also a wake up call for some people in regards to how diverse we are if, when trying to write from another person's POV, you're worried about getting it wrong. Especially when people of colour don't have this problem when writing from the POV of the typical white male/female. It proves there is over exposure of one thing.

      I just hope people encourage others who are making the effort to write from different POV's and not shout them down because "what do they know?" I'm happy to welcome the efforts of others and the mistakes that may come with it if, in the long run, it means we are moving towards a more diverse point in publishing.

      p.s Don't even get me started on Airbender...

  3. Oh man, that last line almost made me spit out my drink. XD Honestly, Tex, I think this post is brilliant and painfully true. I'm very much looking forward to the optimism part. *taps foot*

    1. Haha, me too (about looking forward to the optimism part, I mean - though of course my brilliance is undeniable >.>) Tell you what: I'll give you a dollar to sing "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow" while I write the next one!