2016, so far, is shaping up to be an interesting year.
By some combination of coincidence, serendipity, and/or an unseen hand, I have four on-line acquaintances who have projects coming together more or less in parallel. While they are four very different projects, there is a common theme in their stories. Each of them began with a crackpot idea that ran contrary to modern conventional wisdom and pursued it anyway, and each of them discovered that conventional wisdom was wrong.
Let me explain:
Jefferson Smith: Conventional wisdom says that self-publishing, by its very nature, can have no objective standard of quality control. There are too many books, too many bloggers, too much marketing. It’s a deluge, we are told, with no way to separate the wheat from the chaff.
The Crackpot Idea: “Immerse Or Die” Jefferson looked over the indie books that he read and the ones he gave up on and decided to focus his reviews on asking the question, “Why did I give up on these books?” The answer, he decided, was a lack of reader immersion. Something happened while he was reading the book that knocked him out of the story. Bad writing, bad grammar, a scene that didn’t make sense–something broke his concentration.
He began to judge books on how long he could read without encountering a moment that broke immersion. Since he was in the habit of walking on a treadmill for forty minutes every morning, and like to read while he did so, that forty minute walk became his benchmark. Thus was the Immerse Or Die Report born.
The Fallout: Steadily building momentum and growing interest. The treadmill image is a nice hook for news stories–it’s a quirky novelty. But more than that, both authors and readers are attracted to the transparency of the review process and a level playing field. Every book gets forty minutes, and the reports show exactly what works, what doesn’t, and where the problems are. While it is impossible to entirely remove the reviewer’s own prejudices, the IOD Report gives concrete examples of the mechanical issues that lead to a reader losing interest.
Jeffro Johnson: Conventional wisdom says that modern readers are too sophisticated and too jaded to be interested in the fiction of the past. Science Fiction and Fantasy have grown up and left behind the childish and naive pulp tales of yesteryear.
The Crackpot Idea: “Appendix N” Jeffro decided to take a good hard look at the roots of fantasy fiction. To this end he took his reading list from the Dungeon & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (Gary Gygax, 1979). Appendix N is Gygax’s list of recommended reading–those books that most inspired him and which he felt would be of interest to D&D players.
Jeffro located and reviewed the works on Gygax’s original list, and went on the locate other works by some of the authors listed. What he found was that the fantasy and science fiction of the first half of the 20th Century was a lot different than you’d expect if you just read what has been written about it recently. He went on to post retrospective reviews of the Appendix N fiction, and is currently collecting those reviews into an upcoming book.
The Fallout: He was nominated for the Hugo Award for fan writer. He has also been viciously attacked on-line and described in terms that would make Lovecraft blush. He has kept his head and a (mostly) civil tongue during the controversies that have surrounded Appendix N. Although it’s still tough to judge any long term effect, he is introducing a new generation of readers to the likes of A. Merrit and Leigh Bracket. He has gotten people talking about the roots of fantasy, and he is getting people to read them, and that is what he set out to do.
Alex Kimball: Conventional wisdom says that Sword & Planet fantasy is dead. John Carter Of Mars tanked at the box office, and that was a title that some people at least had heard of. Even most science fiction fans respond to the genre name with a resounding “huh?”Weird Tales style “iron-thewed barbarian fights aliens with a big sword” are simply not going to sell to 21st Century readers.
The Crackpot Idea: “Cirvosa Magazine” Inspired, in part, by Jeffro’s series on Appendix N, Alex decided to try reviving the genre. He put out a call for submissions on his blog and started assembling a magazine. He offered extremely competitive rates–which also went against the “short stories get paid in exposure” conventional wisdom these days–and he got authors willing to give it a try. (Including me, by the way.)
He then took his project to Kickstarter–not to fund it, since he paid out of pocket for the writers, artists, and production costs–but to sell advertising and to start funding the second issue.
The Fallout: He’s made his goal, and more besides, and the campaign isn’t over yet. He is already collecting stories for the next issue. People are interested, both readers and writers. It remains to be seen what the response to the first issue will be when it hits the stands, but there is some respectable pre-release buzz.
Eddy Webb: Conventional wisdom says that role playing games have to be dark to attract players. After all, White Wolf’s “World Of Darkness” (which Eddy has worked on extensively) isn’t called the “World Of Happiness”. Depressing, bleak settings and required, and characters should be tormented monsters who betray each other.
The Crackpot Idea: “Pugmire” Eddy decided to combine two of his passions–epic fantasy and dogs. At first it was just a cute image, pugs dressed in little suits of armor. Then he began to ask some serious questions about what if the human race vanished suddenly and dogs were left to build a society on their own. What would it be like?
He used his skills in RPG design to make a system that reflects and encourages canine virtues–loyalty, cooperation, courage, sacrifice. The ethos of the game is summed up in the command, “Be A Good Dog!”
The Fallout: Pugmire is HUGE. The response has been overwhelming. The Kickstarter asked for $15,000. As of this writing it has raised nearly a hundred thousand–and it has 36 days left to run. The playtesters, who were largely recruited from players used to being vampires, werewolves, and other monsters, embrace the positive, family friendly ethos of the game. People, it seems, want to be good.
Personally, I find the successes of these projects to be very encouraging. It tells me that following trends is not the only way to reach an audience. In fact, it’s probably not even the best way. Instead, follow your heart. Make the art that you want, the work that satisfies your own soul and gets you excited. Because it’s likely that what you want is also what other people want, and just ignore the “experts” who want to pontificate about the next big thing.