Moneyball and Antifragile

I’m in the process of starting a publishing house.

I know, I know. What century do I think this is? But having spent five years or so intensely studying how publishing works (and learning to write), I think we’re in a place as an industry where it’s time for something new.

As I wrote previously, I think Amazon is wonderful and also a stupid place to sell a book. Amazon long since moved out of the book space and into the data collection business. It’s the only thing they do that actually makes money, and I think that’s by design. That design works against the interests of authors (and other sellers of things like soap and lacy garters, but that’s another article).

For that matter, the publishing industry works against authors, too, while piously adopting the attitude that authors could not survive without them. Parasites often adopt this framework, enslaving the host and convincing it that its survival depends on the parasite’s prospering. Governments are notorious for this. But I digress.

The most important thing to an author is, or should be, the names of the people who like their books. Authors, for generations now, have not had those names. Agents have the names of authors, and the names of editors at publishing houses, because their product is not book sales, so the identities of the readers is not relevant to them. Publishing houses, which are the Guardians of Literature (ANOTHER separate post), should have those names, but they don’t, because they delegated that information to booksellers. Booksellers DO have that data. They can’t really use it, because they don’t produce books.

So follow the path here:

Author — → Agent — →Publisher — →Bookseller — →Reader

The author is three steps removed from the reader, the ultimate consumer. This is a certain recipe for inefficiency. It guarantees it, as a matter of fact. Just look at healthcare.

The various parts of this chain are only theoretically aligned. Many authors are realizing this, as the “bookseller” part of the chain degrades (in some ways) to the point of irrelevancy. Even if you’re Stephen King, you sell only a minor fraction of your books out of Big Bookseller Chain Store; most of your selling comes out of Amazon, which of course is a bookseller, of sorts (though of a very different character).

As authors realize this, they “go indie”, which for most means that they believe they are self-publishing their books. It does not, however, mean this. Their chain looks like this:

Author — →Amazon (Kobo, et al.) — →Reader

A shorter, more efficient chain. Less waste involved. But still, the most critical piece of the puzzle remains in the hands of the middleman, instead of in the hands of the producer. It’s a step forward for authors, for sure, and this has led to a great deal of self-congratulation on the part of indie authors, who believe they’ve found the way around the system and stuck it to the man.

That sound you hear is the man. Laughing his head off.

Last night I watched the relevant section of the movie Moneyball. I love baseball. I love the lore of it, the romance of it, the grizzled-veteran-who-understands-the-ineffable part of it. But the grizzled veteran is wrong. A lot. At least as often as the random guesser, if not more often.

Moneyball exposed this (after Billy Beane and his beancounters did it on the field). There were inefficiencies in the system. There were ways the game was being played by an unwritten set of rules that actively hurt the players of that game, and nobody realized it until Beane plugged a computer in and demonstrated that you could build a championship team for sixteen bucks and some pizza. He knew things nobody else knew — not just didn’t know, but actively resisted knowing.

This morning I was reading Nassim Taleb’s brilliant Antifragile. It’s a book about how some things gain from disruption, some things thrive from being attacked. In the section from this morning, I learned about the reverse-engineered narrative that progress comes from research and government funding, or the narrative that it is experts and academics that are relentlessly, incrementally, moving society forward. Taleb is fairly devastating in his dissection of this heuristic. It is, in fact, nonsense.

Countries become educated after they become prosperous, not prosperous because they are educated. It’s not (formal) education that makes success. It’s not the prescience of the scout that plucks the superstar from the serried ranks of high school pitchers (it’s just the numbers). And it’s not the agent, or the editor, or the publishing house, that identifies the huge bestseller from a set of pages in the slush pile. Outside of marketing muscle, which raises the likelihood of initial sales (like the opening weekend of a movie), they don’t know what books will sell any more than a monkey does.

Rather, these narratives are put together after the fact. My father is one of the most highly-educated people I know. He went to Columbia and Stanford. The narrative reads: he’s highly-educated because he went to Ivy League schools and their ilk. But this is false. He stopped going to school when he was 28. He’s 77 now. If his education was dictated by those schools, he would long since have lost it.

The truth is somewhat different. He is the sort of intellectually curious person that SHOULD go to an Ivy League school, not because they’ll make him curious, but because they have resources to satisfy that curiosity, marginally better than others. If he had gone, instead, to the University of Utah (which was blocks from his home), would he be different? No. That’s stupid. He’d be the same person he is now, without the impressive pieces of paper, sure, but the same. Columbia didn’t make Gordon Jones a titan.

Publishers didn’t make Stephen King a great writer. All they did was make him an international bestseller — by their own definition, notice — which they were, at the time, uniquely positioned to do. They controlled the lists on which author names appeared, and they control the authors (those contracts are insane), so they could work both ends.

Not any more.

Publishing houses offer almost nothing to a new author. Even the cred that used to accrue to an author who landed a publishing contract is diminishing; within a decade, it will be gone entirely (along with the big publishing houses, barring a miracle).

As Billy Beane exploited the gross inefficiencies in the game of baseball, so someone with a very little bit of vision and a small amount of willingness to risk…not much, actually…will put out books that sell millions of copies, without Amazon or Little Brown House of Penguins, or whatever the big houses are calling themselves these days.

It’s already happened, even in the still-inefficient indie system, where authors are still ceding control over their fanbase to other entities that don’t have the ability to deliver to that fanbase what it truly wants. Newsletter lists, street teams, book launches, all that indie authors put together to narrow the gap between the author and the reader, only can get so close. The middleman has to get out of the middle — or, alternatively, the middleman has to start offering to the producer what the producer actually needs.

No, it will not bring accolades from the traditional apparatus of publishing. It will not bring bestseller list mentions. It will not garner awards (except by accident). All it will do is provide a living for authors who couldn’t possibly make one by going through the current process, because the current process is not set up for authors to profit from it.

A couple weeks back, I was at a writing conference and overheard a conversation between a couple of mid-list authors, people that had had some success, publishing both with trad publishers and indie. “It’d be nice,” one said, “if we could find a publisher that would help us get directly to the people that want to read what we’re writing.”

“Fat chance,” said the other. “That’s never going to happen. Publishers are only out for themselves. Even if they came up with a system that was good for us, they’d only twist it to make money, and who cares about us?”

That’s where we’ve arrived. Producers believe that they can’t possibly get to consumers directly (and Amazon is NOT directly — that’s delusional, despite Amazon’s relentless marketing message).

But they can. And there will be publishers that help them do it.

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