Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"The Market" is Bunk

So I've had this thing to say ever since I read the New Yorker article about how Sims almost didn't happen and how it almost didn't have same-sex relationships in it. (Go read it; it's not long.)

I have been not feeling like expressing myself on this topic here, partly for a concatenation of personal stuff crap that has kept me from feeling like posting anything thoughtful at all, and partly because this blog primarily exists to give people who google me something dynamic to see besides my peripatetic newsgroup activity, which is mostly about Forteana and gaming. Since I expect (hope) at least some of the people who do so will be agents, editors, and other people in the industry deciding whether they want to have dealings with me, my strong opinion about What's Wrong with Publishing may not be the best thing to have turning up in that context.

But you know what? At this point, I have so little to lose, screw it.

What this article crystallized for me is the reality that the people in charge of marketing, in any given media industry, don't have a clear or realistic idea of what their market is.

In this specific article, two quotes from the interviewee stand out: “I guess straight guys that make sports games loved the idea of controlling two lesbians.” and "I don’t think they understand that family friendly can include gay people." The first sentence demonstrates that he participates in the same narrow construction of the audience that he complains of in the second. He is assuming that the reason the crowd at the game expo went wild over the incidental female/female kiss in the background of the Sims video was that they were all macho jerks with voyeuristic intentions; but that's a huge assumption to make even about the audience at a videogame trade show in 1999.

Time has shown that Sims players (and bear in mind that the Sims franchise is one of the most consistently profitable in the industry) are a dedicated, creative, patient, and overwhelmingly female bunch; to the point that I default to feminine rather than masculine pronouns when referring to players of unknown gender in a sims-fanbase context online, and am usually correct. He was at the trade show and I wasn't, so it's safe to say this wasn't the case with the industry people who saw the video and that most of them were, indeed, male; but it is hardly fair to assume that they wanted to "control lesbians" rather than being excited at the prospect of a full-life simulator that is flexible enough to allow a wide range of human behaviors. That, in fact, they were decent human beings attracted by a really cool concept with vast potential.

And yet, these same assumptions about the gaming audience are repeatedly made by marketers. I see them shooting themselves in the foot over and over in advertising. A great many people who had been excited about Sims4 dropped all intention to buy it when they saw a trailer apparently targeting antisocial 13-year-old boys; and those who did not do so were discussing ways to circumvent and mod out features that they found offensive or limiting (such as an "insane" trait) at the point that I blocked the "sims4" tag on tumblr. (Because heaven spare me from edition wars and I'm perfectly happy with my Sims2.) Yes, the misogynistic jerk gamer is a reality (google "Gamergate" and see!), just as Westboro Baptist Church is, but the one is no more a fair representation of the hobby than the latter is of Christians. (And by the way, why would you want to cater to a morally bankrupt marketbase like that when you can market to people you'd like if you met them?)

We see the same thing over and over and over, where ever media are sold. I was in a panel at last year's World Con devoted to the question of why a certain niche market wasn't filled, and the panelists kept coming back to "there isn't a market" even when the market stood up in front of them and said "Here I am." I cannot hear "There isn't a market" or "the market doesn't want" or any such similar constructions, said by anybody, and not hear: "I don't know how to sell to that market and am not interested in learning."

I would like to say at this time that I do not feel victimized by this as a writer. Do I think big publishers could do a better job of promotion for the books that need it the most? Sure; and this has included me in the past; but that has nothing to do with me at the moment. Even if it contributes to the reasons why I'm not selling any new books right now, it would only be a small part of my problem.

I do occasionally, however, feel victimized as a reader. I'm a lot closer to the assumed core book market than a lot of people, and I never have a shortage of stuff to read, or come out of a bookstore without an uneasy feeling that I shouldn't have spent so much; yet even I get tired of heterosexual romantic interests, white characters, fantasy worlds based on medieval Europe, and a whole cluster of assumptions about what will appeal to me based on the idea that I'm from either California or New York, white, middle-class, and unwilling to try too hard to understand an alien viewpoint; or that, if I'm not like that, I fantasize about being that way and can easily identify with a type of person who could not be expected to identify with me. If even I feel slighted and confined, how much worse must it be for people who are dismissed as not being part of the market at all?

It's true I'm a crappy marketer myself. I don't know how to sell stuff; because the moment anyone tries to sell me something, I don't want it. I want to find things for myself. I wouldn't presume, in the normal course of things, to tell somebody else how to do their job, especially when I know their job is one I couldn't do.

But in this instance - I'm right.

And I may not know how to solve this problem; but I do have enough faith in marketing people to believe that, if they can have that epiphany and realize that they are defining the products they represent right out of a huge potential for growth, they can learn how to change their approach to exploit that potential.

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