Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why so serious?

I don't really have anything important or writing related to say -- still working hard on the book! -- but I want to get in the habit of not neglecting the bloggin'. So, in honor of the release of Tangled, how about some Disney songs?

My all-time favorite Disney movie:

And this one's up there, too. Also, I'm pretty sure this movie served as a catalyst for puberty for me.

Mulan is often ignored, but it really shouldn't be. Who says Disney doesn't make strong female characters?

And finally, since I can't embed any Tangled videos (stupid EMI!), here's a bonus:

Friday, March 25, 2011

Story vs. Demographics -- What's Fair?

Dragon Age II's Merrill, as drawn by squanderling

Making commercial art, or really, any art that's designed for an audience, is always a matter of balancing self-expression with enjoyability. Sure, if your 500,000 word stream-of-consciousness epic about sea slugs is just dying to be written, put that baby on paper!

But on some level, writers want to produce something that people will connect with, and sometimes yes, something that will make us a little bit of cash as well. At what point, then, does an artist "owe" something to her target audience?

I started thinking about this as I scrolled through my daily (okay, more often than that) check of Kotaku, and came upon the following article, covering the complaint by one fan about the lack of romance options for straight male players and the writer response from Bioware, the developer.

Let me start by saying that it annoys me when people with a strong love of heternormality include other people in their argument, as if we all agree with them. The original poster, Bastal, complains that:

BioWare neglected The Straight Male Gamer

And this is offensive on its face. I am a Straight Male Gamer (such an important concept, apparently, that it needs to be capitalized!), but I did not feel neglected. I did not feel neglected when I played, as I generally do in Bioware games, as a bisexual female character, and I did not feel neglected when I replayed, as again is customary, as a bisexual (and kind of an asshole) male character. Go ahead and complain that you feel neglected, but please don't lump me in to your anti-gay, anti-woman tantrum.

Even worse is the assertion that the two romance options for a heterosexual male character, Merrill and Isabela, are somehow not normal, not sufficient:

Unfortunately, those choices are what one would call "exotic" choices.

Exotic? I doubt the poster could have chosen a more offensive word if he tried. For the uninitiated, Merrill, as seen at the top of this post, is a quirky Elven woman, so I suppose I can understand that. Maybe some people just really can't get past the pointy ears. But the other option is Isabela. Who is Isabela? A sharp-witted pirate, one who is, shall we say, experienced in the ways of love. So did Bastal label Isabela "exotic," and thus undesirable, because of her sexuality? It's a possibility, and that's incredibly misogynistic. But the more likely scenario is because she looks like this:

For the vision-impaired: she's not white.
So yeah, there's also a creepy racial undertone to this whole argument. Bastal is not even simply complaining that there aren't enough wimmin for his taste; he's complaining that there aren't enough chaste white wimmin for his taste, and Bastal don't approve of no miscegenation. The argument is gross and offensive from the beginning, but Bastal brings up a fair topic for discussion. Bioware has made games where, say, a homosexual male character has no romance options, and this is generally acceptable, because it's not necessary to shoehorn every sexual option into every game. But imagine there were no options for a heterosexual male character. Is this somehow less acceptable because the Straight Male Player is the target audience?

Privilege, or Demographics?

Those who fail to recognize their own privilege tend to get understandably angry about being accused of bigotry. I don't hate "the others," they insist. It's the others who are demanding unfair benefits that outweigh their representation -- it's all about the demographics. I represent x% of the population, so I should get exactly x% of the consideration.

Hopefully, most of you are shaking your head about how lame that reasoning is. For those of you that aren't, it may be because you're thinking of this in the setting of a video game, and not a book or a movie. The main character in Dragon Age 2 is supposed to be a representation of the player, right?. But that's not the case. Bioware long ago dispensed with the idea that the player character is a simple avatar. Mass Effect's Commander Shepard and DA2's Hawke are voiced characters with opinions, fully formed backgrounds and agency. Yes, your choices influence their personality (more on this next week), but the age of the silent, blank canvas protagonist is over.

The other problem with this reasoning, of course, is that the writers never once removed choice from the player. Even in earlier Bioware games, your player can be a homosexual, or asexual, or whatever -- there just may not be a character in your party with whom you can consummate your love. What Bastal is demanding is that Bioware cave to his expectations and actually design the OTHER characters in the game based on demographics.

When you look at this demand from the perspective of any other type of art, it clearly falls apart. The focus should be on the story, and on the characters. They should grow from conception to creation. Their sexuality should be something that is a part of them, the same way as hair color; it shouldn't be thrown in because 80% of our players are blond, and therefore 80% of characters need to be towheaded as well.

Kaidan Alenko is bland, but at least he's not randomly gay
Bioware has actually gotten better at this over the years. The romance options in their early games were very formulaic, but even then, they didn't force sexuality on a character when it clearly didn't fit. Dragon Age 2 is some of their best work. It's a lesson in what happens when the romances are not designed by committee, but by natural character growth. The sexuality and romance just fits. Stoking love in this game never felt like I was just checking a box in my character's profile, and that's an achievement of which the developers should be proud.

But should they be worried? Target audience is always a part of marketing. For good or bad, if I write a literary novel from the point of view of a gay character, it's likely to be labeled as 'LGBT Fiction' and ignored by the mainstream public. There's nothing anyone can do about that. A reader who doesn't want to read about, or play, a homosexual character doesn't have to. If Bioware's sales drop off sharply because of this (I seriously doubt it), they'll have no one but themselves to blame for not addressing the correct market.

Where Bastal crosses the line, however, is in the insinuation that an artist OWES her target audience something. How entitled of him! If a fan of Fantasy novels picks up a book marketed as Fantasy, and it has no magic, he has every right to say "I don't like this book, and I'm not going to read it because it doesn't have magic." He does NOT have a right to say "How DARE you for not putting magic in here! Your target audience enjoys reading about magic! You OWE us!"

This, I believe, is the answer. Bastal has every right in the world to say "Unless you include a white heterosexual woman for me to romance, I won't buy your game." But Bioware has the right to say "This is the story we're telling. Deal with it."

Writers do not owe an audience anything other than the best story they can produce. They do not owe you any elements you think to be required. They do not owe you a sense of heteronomality because most of the population is heterosexual. They do not owe you a release date. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman: Bioware is not your bitch.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Case of the Icky Readers

Nathan Bransford generated some interesting comments last week about the value of 99-cent readers. The initial conversation revolved around an interview with Zoe Winters, an eBook author. The article, "Does Lowballing Attract the Wrong Kind of Reader?", sent chills down my spine just reading the title. The wrong kind of reader? What, exactly, is that? It seems like a business complaining about "the wrong kind of customer" or "the wrong kind of venture capitalist." But maybe she has a point? It's worth exploring, right?

No, not really.

The Quality of the Customer

The thrust of the argument is that "quality" of a customer is more important than "quantity." Let's briefly touch on the assumption that someone who would purchase a $37 eBook, a price-point that interviewer Jennifer Mattern seems to advocate, is "higher quality" than a reader who buy at 99-cents. The idea is that buying a book at a high price instills reader loyalty, whereas a lowball price does not. That's absurd on its face. How many times has a high price made you more likely to buy something else from the same company or author? How many computer manufacturers, for instance, try to shoot for the highest price possible out of the idea that if consumers pay too little, they won't be likely to buy from that company again? Nobody, of course. If, out of some case of temporary insanity, I pay $37 for your eBook, it better damn well be one of the best books I've ever read, or I'm exceedingly unlikely to purchase any of your future works. On the other hand, price your book at $.99, and not only will I be more likely to buy it, I'll be a lot more likely to give it the benefit of the doubt, see the potential, overlook the flaws and try your next book.

I have a feeling that Ms. Winters and Ms. Mattern agree with my logic up to now. "Of course a higher price doesn't instill loyalty. It weeds out those readers who aren't loyal!" Ms. Winters even says:

"I think the readers I attract now are truly interested in MY work, and not just a bargain. I feel like the readers I’m attracting are the types of readers who are going to be passionate about the work and tell other people."

This, to put it simply, is a fallacy. Math averse should look away right now. Let's call X the set of readers that will read a book at a $9 price point. Let's call Y the set of readers that will read a book at a $.99 price point. I'll use some of Ms. Mattern's noncontroversial assumptions that the readers in Y are, on average, more loyal (and thus more desirable) than the readers in X. This is certainly true; if you're selling your book at a bottom-of-the-barrel price, you'r certainly going to attract a certain readership that is voracious in reading, and don't really care who or what they consume as long as it's cheap. 

However, where I believe Ms. Mattern's and Ms. Winter's argument breaks down is in the assumption that X is not a part of Y. The assumption is that all those loyal readers somehow won't be there if you sell your book for cheap. That's false logic. A low price point doesn't scare away loyal reader, or if it does, that has failed to be proven to me. Ms. Winters muses that a low price creates some sort of psychological idea that the book is going to suck, which is not the way it works in any other creative medium, so I'm not sure why anyone would think it would be the case here. Instead, the likely truth is that X is a subset of Y. Y has all those crazy, unloyal, finicky readers, sure, but it has all the same loyal readers as X. If your only concern is having "the right kind" of readers, I see no reason why a higher price point would help you achieve this goal.

So 99-cents is the way to go?

Not necessarily. What my post shouldn't be construed as is an economic suggestion one way or another. The interview itself shies away from the examples of 99-cent millionaires, instead focusing on how such successes are rare. Ms. Winters says:

"I think almost no one can make a solid living with 99 cent ebooks because you have to have huge volume for that. When I sold 6,500 ebooks in June 2010, that was around $2,300. Well, most people can’t live on that, especially after you take out Uncle Sam’s cut."

And that is a completely fair statement. Maybe most authors can't make a living at that price point. If that's the case, raise your prices to $2.99. Or $4.99. Or $37.99. The idea that 99-cent eBooks exert a downward pressure on all prices is a similarly valid one, but that's not a worry that individual authors have control of. Regardless of how you price your books, there will be authors that sell for 99-cents. Hell, there will be authors that give their works away for free, and not all of these works are "low-quality." Some people just care more for readership than money. That is their right, and it's pointless to think that the entire marketplace is controlled by how you price your books. 

One of the strawmen that gets thrown around, sometimes, is that people like me (sometimes referred to as 'Freevangelists') think everything should be free, and an author shouldn't deserve to make money. Nothing could be further from the truth. I think great artists deserve to be compensated, and I would love a world where talented authors could be guaranteed a living. But that is beside the point. 

The argument from 'Freevangelists' is not that free or low-price is always ideal, but that it's sometimes ideal. If you can make $1,000,000 selling eBooks at 99-cents, but you only make $500,000 selling eBooks at $2.99, should you raise your prices simply because 99-cents "devalues your work?" Of course not! It's silly! I'm absolutely not saying that 99-cents is an ideal price, or that all authors should aim for that. Each author and publisher is going to need to make economic decisions based on their individual situation. That's part of running a successful business. What I'm saying is that discounting a certain price point because of it makes you feel icky is wrong, both from an economic view, and from the view of respecting your fans, regardless of how much cash they shell out. A fan is a fan. A reader is a reader. Cherish them.