Wednesday, July 15, 2009

rate of change

A while back I came across a blog post discussing the teaching of mathematics in schools. (I think the link is buried somewhere deep in the Drafts Folder. Along with 90% of all posts. Not convinced 99% would not be a better number. Anyway.) A commenter said he did not need his lawyer to know algebra.


I've dealt with a lot agents and lawyers and accountants over the years. Algebra, no, I don't think my life would have been better if they had demonstrated competence in algebra. Exponential growth and decay, though, this is a concept that would have been helpful. Helpful as in enabling me to publish a book as a year rather than having a 9-year gap.

It's 2.38 am in Berlin. I'm sitting in Drama, a breakaway bar founded by Peter, who used to be a partner at Prinz Eisenherz, the gay café two doors up, before he got fed up. He wanted a place that would not be just for gays, but for everyone. So he went for a decor of fuchsia and gilt and faux leopardskin. As one would.

When one works on a book it has a momentum. It reaches a point where it can be finished a month, if one has a clear month at time t. If it's disrupted for a month, though, it will probably take two months to complete. If it's disrupted for six months it may well need a year to complete. If it's disrupted for a year it may not be possible to finish within the author's lifetime. Accelerating deceleration.

There's an obvious cost to leaving a book unfinished. There's a cost to having a gap of 10 years rather than 1 between books. And the latter, unfortunately, also requires some kind of seat-of-the-pants understanding of basic calculus, because fame is also subject to exponential growth and decay. The number of people who recognize an author's name falls off not just rapidly, but increasingly rapidly. (After 10 years everyone between the ages of 20 and 30 was under the age of 20 when the last book was published; these are not people, for the most part, with whom the first round of readers would have bothered to discuss it.)

So, from a strictly financial view, which is where one might hope to find understanding among the moneyminded, there's a value to simple, easily concluded deals; there's a value to the kind of editor who wants only minor changes and hands in comments in a week; there's a value to the kind of lawyer who not only says permissions won't be a problem but lays on clerical support to clear them; there's a value to the kind of copy editor who discusses the text with the author before getting to work, and who then respects the author's mark-up; there's a value to a typesetter who is competent to set the text. There's a value to the kind of publicist who sets up a timetable and sticks to it. And there's a value, consequently, to any kind of representative who is not only frugal with the author's time him- or herself, but who encourages such frugality in everyone dealing with the book.

What's interesting.

If you look at the British and American educational systems, America looks like a country with a much higher general level of numeracy. In Britain, only 12% of 17-year-olds do Maths A-level, which is where calculus and, for that matter, probability are studied. It's not just perfectly possible to be a lawyer or an agent or an editor in Britain and have studied no mathematics after the age of 16; it's highly probable that people holding those jobs have never seen a delta in their lives. In America, on the other hand, a year of calculus is commonplace for all kinds of people who don't plan to do further work in mathematics or the sciences. What I might expect, in other words, is a dramatic difference between my British and American contacts. In Britain I might expect the mere phrase "exponential decay" to bring on glazed eyes and wild terror; in America, on the other hand, I might expect to -- that is, if I explained the problem in terms of exponential decay I might expect instant recognition, but in fact I might expect not to have to explain. It's not my job, surely, to explain the underlying mathematics to the business people? Isn't it their job to know these things, and bring them to bear whether I understand them or not? (A knowledge of calculus may be helpful for some works of fiction, but it's surely not a prerequisite? Shouldn't all writers have the benefit of numerate business advisors?) Anyway, it does seem to me that I might reasonably expect to find common ground with the mathematically superior Yanks. But. Well. Hm.

A reader told me a while back that he thought most people had a romantic idea of writers, which writers, for the most part, maintained, and that writers did not talk about money, either because they were themselves romantics, or because they thought talking about it would look pedestrian and unromantic. But it's not, actually, that money is the thing that I'm thinking about. I'd like to avoid going insane. Having a book go dead does something to the mind; you stand on railway platforms and you don't know whether the body will throw itself in front of the train. I think Leonard Cohen is right - it's not in the same class as having your fingernails pulled out - but it still makes falling in front of a train look good.

The thing is, though, that I don't expect a lawyer or an agent to understand what it feels like to have a book go dead. I don't expect them to understand what it's like to hold a Stanley knife in the hand and not know what will happen next. (Will it slash a wrist? The throat? What's going to happen?) With money, though, we're talking about the quantifiable, we have (I think) common ground. I can talk about this in their terms, and they'll get it, and because maximization of money is on my side I won't have any problems.

Well. Um. Hm.

Should probably consign this to the Drafts Folder. Drama is closing for the night. The staff are stacking chairs, they want to go home. I'm outstaying my welcome.


Jim H. said...

Step away from the platform. Put the knife down. Do something fun (whether it's a cipher or a boatride on the Rhine or run around the block a few times or go to a bad movie—Harry Potter, maybe?—with a friend, trash a celebrity, whatever).

Step away from the book. Put the book down. Then, refreshed, discuss it with someone else, show it to someone, get input from a colleague (maybe not a friend). Reread it in a single sitting (or two) to catch your own drift. Commit to it again, like a first spouse you regret letting drift away.

Jim H.

S.P. said...

If you sell the books you've written on your site the same way you offered YNH, the ones you have completed and put aside, I will buy them. I'm sure others will as well.

I'll bet you've considered this, and that there's a reason why you've decided against it. But I will give you money for your art, for a PDF copy of YNH without the pictures removed, for short stories and chapter installments, for the false starts and unfinished, for things you want people to read, anything. I want to spend money on these things.

So, and this is my naïveté speaking, fuck the publishers. Get a Creative Commons license, sell your work yourself. Go to a vanity publisher, offer hard copies to the people that want them. Don't have time to manage this nonsense? Get an enthusiastic assistant (maybe they'll even take dictation if you go blind).