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Indie Sci-Fi Authors Are Upending Traditional Publishing, And It’s Turned Into A War


It was only a matter of time before extreme leftist science fiction professionals aimed their fire at the independent author group 20BooksTo50K, a community dedicated to helping authors with the business of writing. The Facebook group boasts more than 28,500 members, and their annual conference is the largest independent writing conference in the world.

The book industry establishment is identity politics-obsessed, an angry brigade who seized control of the traditional publishing industry years ago. Publishers and editors berate independent authors regularly via blogs and social media, such as Tor Books’ Teresa Nielsen Hayden rambling on Twitter about how an independent No. 1 bestseller on Amazon is “not a bestselling author by any definition of the term used by readers and booksellers,” or the president of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA), Cat Rambo, calling a sci-fi blog post cheering on independent self-publishing “egregiously stupid” in the comments of sci-fi gossip site File 770.

20BooksTo50K managed to stay off the establishment’s radar until this last week. How? The group of authors keep their collective heads down and do what they’re supposed to—write books. Only their readers tend to notice them, and with applause as they enjoy new releases at rapid rates because of how hard these authors work to crank out their work.

The situation changed as the elites in publishing came out in force to chastise 20BooksTo50K over several of its members receive nominations for science fiction’s Nebula Awards, an award given by SFWA and voted on by its members. The award used to be the second most prestigious in science fiction until recent years, as SFWA’s prominence in culture has faded. Although 20BooksTo50K has several members in the guild, it was perceived as a threat to a few traditional publishing houses dominating the awards.

The Modern History of Establishment Publishing’s Failures

Running book businesses on the basis of extreme identity politics has failed legacy publishing at every turn. Over the last several years, they created an enemy in the culture war in the form of The Sad Puppies, a group of conservative authors who decided to band together to push for Hugo Award nominations based on what readers liked rather than the elites’ tastes.

The establishment turned the once prestigious Hugo Awards into a political cause, rallied the extremists in their ranks to take over the award, and changed the rules to make it difficult for anyone outside an insular clique to receive nominations, where mostly the same people get nominated and win since the rule change was established.

The left-wing extremists’ gaming of awards didn’t sell them more books. Traditional market share decreased, while indie’s share increased. Authors at traditional publishing houses doubled down on extreme political content to where you couldn’t escape it in any of their books. Nearly every major new book focuses on identity politics, such as N.K. Jemisin’s recent, oddly titled collection, “How Long ‘til Black Future Month?”

One New York agent told me at a writing conference, “You can’t sell anything without LGBT issues in it.” Traditional publishing didn’t reflect on their business practice, nor focus on creating stories that readers wanted. Establishment organizations like SFWA became filled with an angry group of smaller writers who mostly sell occasional short stories to dying magazine markets.

They’d thought their cultural opponents all but vanquished to their own corner of the market after the Sad Puppies, but they were wrong. The battle over science fiction of the readers versus publishing elite was only beginning.

Enter 20BooksTo50K

20BooksTo50K was founded as a small Facebook group of indie authors who wanted to better their business skills. They focused on publishing, advertising, business models, and most of their conversations are all about those points. They didn’t care about politics at all, but just good books being produced. The authors’ group is comprised of shrewd businessmen and has performed amazingly in the market over the last several years.

At their annual conference last year in Las Vegas, several authors raised their hands when asked if they were making more than $100,000 per month on Amazon. Dozens were making more than $10,000 per month, and almost the entire conference was making more than $1,000 per month on their books. If the industry were in as much trouble as establishment publishing likes to moan about, how did this happen?

The 20BooksTo50K group is focused on appealing to readers—and what most readers want out of science fiction is escapism and fun. The big authors of the past understood this, and that’s why we still hail so many of the greats like Frank Herbert, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert Heinlein. The classic stories have a vision that brings fun and awe to their readership. Modern establishment publishing stories are mired in literary traps and identity politics in order to impress elites, but most readers don’t identify with those kind of stories.

20BooksTo50K’s attitude is that Amazon is the great equalizer. Anyone can go publish a novel on Amazon and make it big, without any gatekeeping by literary agents or publishers. The group gets its name from founder Michael Anderle analyzing his self-published work, and understanding based on the market data he had that he needed to produce 20 books to make $50,000 a year so he could retire in Cabo.

He formed a Facebook group with Craig Martelle because they were being run out of other independent author groups because the radical business mindset shifts they were proposing weren’t accepted by many traditional-minded authors. The group became so much more, as Anderle and others became millionaires in a few years by catering to readers and checking identity politics at the door.

The 20Books Vegas conference focused on the market—from data of who’s reading what, to how to build better advertising campaigns, and how to keep market-focused with titles and covers. They provide business information to authors that is unparalleled by other conferences.

The group often jokes that these are the most successful authors you’ve never heard of. The authors don’t mind, since they prefer the stories to speak for themselves. Writers like Anderle, Richard Fox, J.N. Chaney, and others sell millions of books, and readers eat up their new releases because their content reminds them of going and seeing movies. It truly is a revolution in publishing.

This group wants readers, and they don’t litmus test based on politics, unlike many traditionally published authors. Bestseller Jay Allan told me at the 20Books Vegas conference that his goal isn’t to get involved in any political fighting or make incendiary posts on social media, because all it does is turn off potential readers. He wants everyone to be able to read.

That attitude and customer care has paid off for hundreds of writers. This year, it’s done even more as they’ve been able to gain a number of nominations for stories in the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Nebula Awards.

20BooksTo50K Takes the Nebula Awards By Storm

Several 20BooksTo50K members made it into the Nebula Award finalist list this year, with their books and stories gaining more and more notoriety with each release. The awards are voted on only by SFWA members, and a lot of 20BooksTo50K members have qualified to join the organization, which has fairly rigorous standards for membership. Much of the group decided to join for the qualification, as it’s been a fairly prestigious matter in writing to join SFWA.

The establishment became angry. Several of the elite commentator class posted blogs, such as one by Hugo Award-nominated Camestros Felapton—a left wing troll known for antagonizing right-wing authors—who criticized 20Books for alleged rigging of the awards. His evidence was a post by one of the members in the Facebook group listing dozens of works by the group that were eligible for the current year. He calls it a “slate”—a term the establishment used to rile up their ranks against the Sad Puppies with the Hugo Awards controversy, where right-leaning authors tried to break the lockstep nominations of extreme political works.

The Sad Puppies produced slates of recommended nominations to make it more likely for readers to coalesce around certain books, which would then have better odds of succeeding. Martelle takes exception to the claim applying here, however, saying, “There was no slate or violation of the rules.”

The targeted blogs and social media posts are a coordinated effort by traditional publishing’s elites to diminish 20BooksTo50K’s credibility among establishment publishing and brand them as a political organization to fight. In 2019, being apolitical has become akin to declaring your politics to the extreme left. Much of the left has taken an “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” attitude to try to harm people who don’t want to take sides in the culture war. It’s a dangerous view to take, as writers have been blacklisted and banned, and now even worse.

The Dangerous Results of Identity Politics

In early February, Alterna Comics publisher Peter Simeti fell victim to the dangerous escalation. He’s been the target of leftist mobs on Twitter, who have harassed him for failing to disavow a right-leaning movement known as #ComicsGate.

Much like the 20BooksTo50K crowd, Simeti wants all customers to read his books. His firm stance in defense of readers resulted in someone anonymously calling the police, falsely claiming he was suicidal and violently abusing his girlfriend, a nasty harassing tactic known as SWATing.

“I just had two guns pointed at me tonight because someone made a call to the police and gave them my address along with a falsified report,” Simeti said. Marvel comics writer Donny Cates chimed in on the subject, stating, “This should be obvious but: disagreements about comics are not worth threatening someone’s life. Whoever did this is disgusting and I hope they are found out.”

We’ve yet to see how the Nebula Awards will pan out or how this battle in the culture war will escalate, but 20BooksTo50K has already made its mark with readers, which is where it counts in the market. The nominations are just another notch in these authors’ star-studded belts. They are the face of a changing market in culture where we don’t have to make everything in our lives political all the time. Despite the left’s grandstanding in science fiction publishing, 20BooksTo50K and their philosophy of entertainment first are the future.