Clock share: Writers vs. the competition

In one of his series of essays on ‘Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing’, Dean Wesley Smith takes aim at what he calls the ‘myth’ that writers compete with one another. He pours scorn on this ‘myth’, and on all who believe it. A short but representative sample:

The myth is simply that writers compete.

Of course, this is so far wrong, it shouldn’t be even talked about, but alas it’s still out there and going strong. In fact, I recently made the mistake of wondering over onto the Kindle boards and wasted a bunch of hours before I came to my senses. By the time I was finished with those hours, I knew I had to talk about this, since new writer after new writer talked about how they had to compete with all the other writers to get their books read.

He then goes on to paint a wonderful Technicolor picture of a world where there is an unlimited demand for fiction, pie for you and me and pasture for all the sheep, and the sky’s the limit, baby. Now, I do not know what religion Mr. Smith adheres to, but I am a lifelong devotee of what Kipling calls the Gods of the Copybook Headings. And one of the Copybook Headings, which people like Mr. Smith seem never to have heard of, is this:

Trees do not grow up to the sky.

Nothing in human affairs is infinite; no opportunity is limitless. It is true, and trivially true, that every invention, every industry, every product of human hands, creates its own demand. But it is also true, and trivially true, that this demand is subject to the law of diminishing returns. It is very easy to persuade most households to buy a motorcar. It is pretty easy (when there is more than one driver in the household) to persuade them to buy a second car. But once a family of three has four or five cars, they are likely to be keener on getting rid of a car or two than buying yet another. And if the family live in Manhattan or Hong Kong, they may be rightly reluctant to buy even that first car: the roads are already so full of cars that they are very nearly stacked on top of one another.

Now, anybody who reads at all will desire a second book more than a second car. I have something over a thousand books in my flat, and am still buying more. I cheerfully paid money for my thousand-and-first book; I would not buy my thousand-and-first car even if cars were as cheap as books. We appear to have smacked up against the limitations of the analogy, so I hope you will pardon me if I abandon it for another.

Up to the 1980s, Coca-Cola and Pepsi gauged their success or failure in business by market share: that is, by the percentage share that each of them had in the total sales of non-alcoholic fizzy drinks. Then an executive (I forget of which company, but I believe it was a Coke man) came up with the idea of looking at their share of all drinks, even including water. Instead of resting on their laurels because Coke had (say) forty-five percent of the fizzy-drink market and Pepsi had only forty, he exhorted his fellows to get to work selling their product, because it had only about a five-percent share in the quenching of human thirst. He christened this latter figure with the incredibly ugly name of ‘stomach share’. Both Coke and Pepsi have been hard at work increasing their stomach share ever since.

Now, we writers, considered in the aggregate, are in a somewhat similar position. J. K. Rowling and James Patterson, for instance, have each of them a considerable market share out of the number of copies of novels printed and sold each year; but compared to the overall market for entertainment, that whole market is one pip in a watermelon. What we need here is a word that expresses how big we are compared not to the pip but to the watermelon, as ‘stomach share’ does for the drinks business. ‘Timeshare’ and ‘mindshare’ have both been appropriated by marketing people for other uses. For my present purpose, I shall use the term ‘clock share’, which is at any rate less hideous than ‘stomach share’; and if a better term is already in general use, I apologize for my ignorance.

The term ‘clock share’ has at any rate this advantage, that it suggests the division of the day into hours, and also suggests a pie chart: a symbol to which all marketers and stomach-share people are much addicted. It also has at least one important shortcoming, which I will deal with before going on. The fact is that, like some of those who consume fizzy drinks, avid readers suffer from anticipatory gluttony: our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. Some people have hundreds of unread books lying about, which they had every intention of reading when they bought them; yet they go on buying more. The number of hours one has in a day for reading is not a hard limit on how many books one buys. But it is, I may venture to say, a soft limit. We may buy more books in a year than we read in a year; we may buy twice as many; but if we buy ten times as many, our bank managers or our spouses, or at least the clutter in our rooms, will tell us sharply to knock it off. There is then some linkage between the number of books we read and the number we may wish to buy.

(Please note, also, that I am speaking of trade books, and especially of fiction read for entertainment. I myself have scores of encyclopaedias and dictionaries which I shall never read from cover to cover; but I bought those for different reasons. Reference books simply belong in a category by themselves, and I shall not even attempt to discuss them here.)

Every day, every human being (it is an astonishing equality) receives a free gift of twenty-four hours. A billionaire in Beverly Hills cannot buy or even steal a single hour from a starving child in Somalia. Out of those twenty-four, about a third are spent in rest and sleep; another third to a quarter, on the average, in work. To these claims we must add the minor taxes upon our time that keep our bodies whole and our civilization functioning: eating, washing, using the toilet, paying taxes, cursing the government, and (not least of all) transmitting these useful arts to our children. There remain, for the average person, perhaps seven hours a day that can be devoted to edification and amusement. That is the clock; that is the whole market, for shares of which we writers have to compete.

To some extent, we are also competing for money; but reading is actually a very cheap pastime. Orwell showed, in his essay ‘Books vs Cigarettes’, that even in the comparatively impoverished circumstances of wartime and postwar Britain, not many people were prevented from reading solely by a lack of money; they simply did not choose to devote much time to it as an entertainment. Every industrialized country today is richer than Britain in the 1940s; so are some of the countries that we persist in calling ‘the Third World’.

Now, if every form of entertainment was equal, and people made their decisions solely by what was the cheapest way to fill the hours, reading would be enormously more popular than it is. Listening to the radio is virtually free; so is watching over-the-air TV. But both these pastimes are on the decline, chiefly because they leave you at the mercy of the men who decide what programs to broadcast. If you want to choose your own entertainment, you will have to pay for the privilege. An evening at the movies costs (in my part of the world) between five and ten dollars per hour. Live theatre, concerts, sporting events, and so forth tend to cost more, and fall into the bracket of luxury goods. High-speed Internet service, in these parts, goes for a dollar a day and up; for another $8 per month you can add Netflix. Or, if watching live shows (such as sporting matches) in real time is important, you can spend up to $100 or so on cable TV. A console video game may cost as much as $50, and provide anywhere from one or two evenings up to several hundred hours of amusement, depending on how open-ended the game is. The most open-ended games of all are the MMORPGs, which generally come with a monthly fee; you can amuse yourself with one of those for a dollar a day or thereabouts (plus Internet service). In short, leaving cinemas and live shows on one side, and considering only entertainment that is consumed in the home, you can amuse yourself more or less indefinitely for two or three dollars a day; more, if you want a variety of amusements, as most people do.

Where does reading fit in? The average literate person, I am told, can read about 300 words per minute; though people tend to read fiction somewhat more slowly, because they want time to picture the scenes and hear the dialogue in their own minds. Let us, then, knock that figure down to 200. Allowing for time to stretch the legs, fetch drinks, etc., etc., and especially etc., we may suppose that a middling recreational reader goes through 10,000 words in an hour. A doorstop bestseller in a cheap edition may cost about $10 and contain as many as 400,000 words; which works out to 25 cents per hour if you read it only once. Shorter books cost more dollars per hour, but then, better books may be worth rereading, and give you more hours per dollar. We may suppose that it all roughly averages out.

So, if all you do is read, and you buy all your books but don’t bother with expensive editions, you can fill your leisure hours quite easily for the price that most people are willing to pay for online video games or cable TV. It is not a financially onerous hobby, as long as you don’t mix it up with the horribly expensive and endlessly competitive game of being a collector. If you live near a decent public library, or read a lot of public-domain books, you can get by even more cheaply. I conclude that money, for most people in the richer countries, is not a significant obstacle. On price alone, reading can compete.

What competes is habit. Some people will sit in front of a television set for eight to ten hours a day, never quite being bored enough to stir from the couch and do something else. Some people will play online games for stretches of time that nature never intended. And a few people, like C. S. Lewis in his palmy days, will, yes, read for ten hours per day.

I don’t encourage people to do any of these things. But if one form of entertainment has 100 percent of a person’s individual clock share, that’s what it looks like. (Similarly unpleasant consequences can follow if Coke or Pepsi gets 100 percent of your stomach share.)

Very well, then: We don’t want to conquer the world. We don’t want 100 percent clock share. But there indisputably is such a thing as 100 percent clock share, and therefore, reading is in competition with other entertainments. Robert A. Heinlein put it with brutal simplicity: He described his job as writing stories that kids would read instead of watching TV, and that Joe Sixpack would buy instead of beer.

If reading ever became the dominant pastime of literate people, then writers would indeed be in direct competition with one another for clock share. As it is, most people are in the habit of spending their leisure time on other things. It takes a particular kind of book to catch a person’s interest and jar her into reading instead of watching American Idol, climbing mountains, knitting socks for the cat, or what have you. And the book that catches one person will leave another cold. Millions of people love The Lord of the Rings and reread it again and again; millions of others hate it and would pay to be excused. There are, believe it or not, even people who don’t care for Twilight.

This will, I think, always be the case. The act of reading involves putting yourself into a mild trance state, and works well only if the physical and linguistic process of interpreting the words on the paper is largely automatic and subconscious. That requires effort. Then, too, storytelling actually involves a physical cycle of tension and release — the biological reason for stories to have plots. (David Farland explains the phenomenon well in his essay, ‘What Is Entertainment?’. Pay particular attention to the bit about Feralt’s Triangle. I’ll wait for you here.) The upshot of all this is that reading takes effort — not only mental, but to a certain extent, even physical effort, and very few people will spend all their free time doing it.

So while there is a hard limit to the number of hours the collective human race could spend reading — about seven hours per day times the total population — the law of diminishing returns ensures that we will never approach that limit very closely. What we have left is a soft and squishy limit. Nobody can push beyond the hard limit, but a particular author, with a particular book, may get particular readers to push themselves far beyond the soft limit to reap the particular reward that suits them so well.

Now let us return to our muttons, and to Dean Wesley Smith’s particular counterclaims. He goes on to say:

So, let me take a hard look at the reality of fiction writing by dealing with the four things I heard new indie writers say over and over.

Indie writers think they are competing against 1) other writers, 2) other books, 3) traditional publishers, and 4) the noise (meaning the crowding of so many books.)

Needless to say, Mr. Smith pooh-poohs all these claims. I think he exaggerates his case. Nearly all the truths you hear or read are half-truths, and most often the short half. Something is always left out when you try to express a truth in language, and the more complex and subtle the truth, the harder it is to express pithily. (Jesus of Nazareth’s reputation as a philosopher, leaving on one side his status as a religious figure, depends largely upon his brilliance at expressing subtle truths in pithy parables. It’s not as easy as it looks.) Consequently, if you deny one of these half-truths, you will probably be at least half right; but you leave yourself open to a just accusation of throwing out the baby with the bath-water.

Let us look, then, at some babies.

1. Writers compete against other writers. In general terms this is not true, since the clock share of recreational reading is so much smaller than it could be. In particular terms it may be true.

To take a trivial instance, I have often gone into a bookshop and wanted to buy more books than I had the money to pay for. I had hard choices to make, and each book I put back on the shelf represents an author who lost that particular competition. However, I am both a bigger reader and a poorer man than the average. Most people can filch enough from their beer money to buy all the books they really want to read.

More serious is the problem of competition for attention from publishers. In the Dark Ages, that is, the years up to 2010 or thereabouts, the only practicable way for a fiction writer to reach a substantial audience was by submitting manuscripts to publishers. Every reputable publishing house receives hundreds of times more manuscripts than it can possibly publish. The competition for slots on the monthly or quarterly list was always keen. Many an editor has had to turn down books or stories that she would very much have liked to buy, simply because there was no room for them in the publishing schedule.

For published authors, the competition is less numerically daunting but no less keen. The fact is that even within their lines, most publishers and imprints impose a rather arbitrary hierarchy. Each list has one lead title, which receives the lion’s share of the promotion budget. Co-ops, end-cap placement, promotional tours, all the gimmicks that New York and London publishers use to shove books into the channel in quantity — these are reserved almost entirely for the monthly list leaders. The rest of the authors on each list have to make do with the leavings.

If you do reach the point where your books are routinely list-leaders, you are still not out of the woods. A well-known writer of my acquaintance was in the second tier of fantasy authors published by Tor Books. That is, his books did well enough that any new release of his was worth issuing as a leader, but not so well that he was in any danger of knocking Robert Jordan or Terry Goodkind off their tandem perch. It was, in effect, a matter of corporate policy at Tor that they should have two and only two superstar fantasy authors. My acquaintance (I have not asked permission to divulge his name) had therefore to agree to a particularly odious clause in his contract, in exchange for the privilege of being a regular list-leader. He was not allowed to publish a book with Tor for six months before or six months after a new release by either Jordan or Goodkind. On one occasion, Jordan and Goodkind released new books exactly twelve months apart. That meant that this poor fellow could not have a new book out for two solid years. Two years is a long silence in this game; an author who has published nothing for two years will have a biggish job to do in winning back his audience.

The thing about these kinds of competition is that they are entirely artificial, imposed not by the nature of books or the nature of readers, but by the way that traditional book publishers choose to do their business. The bad news is that traditional publishers are continually thinking of new ways to make their business model even worse for writers. The good news is that they are no longer the only game in town, and we can bypass them entirely if we are willing to make the effort and take the risk.

2. Books compete against other books. Again, this is true only in specific instances; and much truer of nonfiction than of fiction. A book on a subject, especially a highly specialized technical subject, can be so definitive that there is no room left for a would-be competitor. In my own pet hobby of Indo-European historical linguistics, the definitive reference work is Pokorny’s Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. It is over 50 years old now, and showing its age, but the overwhelming effort of compiling a replacement, then selling it to the universities and scholars that have invested heavily in Pokorny, has so far been simply prohibitive.

Fortunately, writers of fiction do not have that to contend with. One story does not supersede another. My taste for Don Quixote does not inhibit my appetite for Gulliver’s Travels. Rather the opposite: when a reader develops a real liking for something, she wants more of it than any one writer can provide. Amanda Hocking has grown rich feeding the very audience that Stephenie Meyer could not sate. Isaac Asimov wrote five hundred books in his time, but there never was a reader who read all his books and nobody else’s.

Again, what competition exists is largely artificial and arbitrary. One book competes with another for limited shelf space in brick-and-mortar bookshops — but Amazon’s shelf space, being virtual, is infinite. One book competes with another for the limited printing, warehousing, and marketing budgets of a particular publishing house — but it is trivially easy to start up a new house. And with ebooks, the problem very nearly disappears. (It is replaced by another, perhaps more intractable problem — but I will come back to that in a moment.)

3. Independent writers are in competition with traditional publishing. This used to be true, because the major corporate publishers — the Big Six, as they now are in New York, though in the days of their real power there were more — tried to operate as an oligopoly and a cartel. They exerted their muscle to exclude small presses and self-published authors from Ingram’s and the other major distribution channels; to keep them out of the New York Times and the New York Review of Books; to keep them out of chain bookshops and off bestseller lists.

There was a real and bitter competition between the big corporate publishers and the smaller presses; but that competition is over, and while Goliath is not dead, David has clearly won. Nobody thinks any longer that a book must be worthless because it is published by a small press, and few people can even keep up the old prejudice against self-publishing. Twenty years ago, a self-published novel meant a novel that no real publisher would touch, and a deluded fool with a basement full of unsold books. Today, it may mean a self-made millionaire like James Patterson or the aforementioned Ms. Hocking. A New York colophon was never a guarantee of quality; today, we cannot even pretend that the absence of a New York colophon guarantees a lack of quality.

4. Writers are competing against the noise. This is the modern replacement for numbers 1 and 2 above. It is certainly true that enormous numbers of self-published books have burst upon the market, most of them drearily bad. The slush pile is out in the open. This is both good and bad. The bad news is that readers now have to do the job that editors used to do, searching through the slush for things worth reading. The good news is that they are no longer prevented from choosing the books they want, just because the author could not find an editor who shared that taste.

A decade ago, I heard Mr. Tom Doherty, founder of Tor Books, explain the factors that cause readers to buy a particular book. The most important factor, as I recall, driving about 30 percent of sales, was the author’s name: people who like one of an author’s books very often want to try the others. Word of mouth and the actual book cover were the next two on the list, and all other factors combined — reviews, co-ops, book tours, author interviews, etc., etc. — amounted to perhaps 25 percent. (Mr. Doherty told me these things in a casual conversation, and I did not note down the exact figures.)

For self-published books, which are likely to be ebooks, the cover is perhaps less important; but the three main ways that a reader finds a book to buy are the same online as in traditional print.

1. Janet Stubbs reads a book by Helen Sweetstory and likes it. She goes out looking for other books by Helen Sweetstory.

2. Janet Stubbs tells her friend Joe Bloggs about this wonderful book she has just read. Joe is sufficiently interested to give Helen Sweetstory a try.

3. Janet Stubbs is browsing in a bookshop, and sees an interesting-looking book. The cover catches her eye, the title is intriguing. Approaching a little closer, she finds the blurb appealing. She leafs through the first pages, seeing how the story begins and what Helen Sweetstory’s voice ‘sounds’ like. Having sufficiently kicked the tires, she decides to buy.

Of course, the online retailers have given us a kind of hybrid between 2 and 3, with the ‘You might also like’ feature. In effect, the virtual bookshop contains a whole section of books constructed on the fly for each customer’s amusement. We may go traipsing over a physical bookshop for hours looking for something of interest, but for all the technical wizardry of Amazon, virtual traipsing is not yet an option. So instead we have a charming throwback to the days when a travelling pedlar would spread out his wares in the customer’s home, selecting from his stock the things he thought she would be most likely to buy.

Now, if you are a brand-new writer with only one title on the shelf, you may never overcome the noise; but that is because you are the noise. The signal consists of good books and consistently good writers. Each time someone buys one of your books, the virtual pedlar takes note and begins offering that book to customers with similar tastes. Each time someone tells a friend about one of your books, or writes a review in his blog, the signal is repeated and grows stronger. And each time you come out with a new book, you have added a potential starting point at which people can notice you for the first time, and another product for all your existing readers to come back and (we hope) buy.

In effect, ‘People who buy this book also bought’, and the system of reader reviews at Amazon and other online shops, are ways to crowdsource the slush pile, and very ingenious ones. The recent history of the software industry shows that crowdsourcing is a highly efficient way to detect and correct errors; and from the standpoint of publishing, a worthless book is an error. In terms of information theory, it’s all a matter of filtering noise.

The big losers in all this, perhaps, will be writers like J. D. Salinger or Joseph Heller, who were essentially men of one book. It was never very often that one book made a career; now it is bound to get even rarer. The filters cannot tell if you, the first-time author with a single new title in the system, have written Catch-22 (which millions of people will love) or What I Did Last Summer (which your mother will pretend to love). Thousands of sheer and intentional amateurs are flooding Kindle and Smashwords and Createspace with the kind of books that they would once have sent to a vanity press. This is advantageous for them, since they no longer get stuck with that basement full of unsold books; not so good for the rest of us, and very bad indeed for the Salingers and Hellers of the world. For the present, it is still possible to boost your signal above the noise with one book, by selling it to a prestigious New York or London publisher. If you really are a man of one book, or such a slow writer that your second book will be long in coming, you might be well advised to avoid the noisy signal and do things the old-fashioned way.


  1. […] time; only then can we talk about trying to get some of their money.’ – Tom Simon, Clock share: Writers vs. the competition, February 2, […]

Speak Your Mind