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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Zero-sum gain or fingernails on a chalkboard time

The phrase 'zero-sum gain' is like fingernails on a chalk board for me. I just read it on a worksheet handout for an upcoming RWA workshop on Professional jealousy. It is a common error of the English language and shows that the person using the phrase doesn't know what it means and is simply throwing the words about -- a malapropism.
The actual phrase is zero-sum game. Specifically, the phrase describes a type of game in game theory. I had to do game theory when I did my econ degree so indulge me here.
In a zero sum game -- if one person wins, the other loses. For example tic-tac-toe is zero sum. A cake is zero sum. If one person has a large piece, everyone else remaining must share less. The outcome is finite. Nothing is created, nothing is destroyed. One person wins and the other loses.
Romance writing is not like that. Romance writing is not a zero sum game because one person's success does not mean that everyone else loses. Things are created. The genre is infinite. There are always new publishing slots.
Romance is more like -- a rising tide floats all boats. It is a non zero sum game. Non zero sum games are actually far more interesting.
In order for one person to be successful, it doesn't mean that everyone will be less successful. The outcome is dependant on many factors.
It is why romance authors can take joy in others' success. They are not losing anything. It is not a one shot deal.
BUT please, please, please use the correct phrase and know where it came from.


Nicola Cornick said...

I totally agree that a rising tide floats all boats, Michelle, and generally speaking I've found most romance authors very generous.

I've never heard Zero-Sum Game mis-described as zero-sum gain. Dear me!

michellewillingham said...

One thing that's very true--when one author is particularly successful, it gives the publishing house more money, which they can then use to buy more new authors. Win for everyone!

I've always thought authors were like ice cream. Lots of different flavors, something for everyone. Not everyone will like the same kinds of ice cream, but it doesn't mean one flavor is better than another. They're just different, and that's okay. :)

Michelle Styles said...

Yes Nicola -- I was surprised to find it was a common error and wondered if I should alert the woman giving the workshop but on balance decided no.
Currently I am wondering about steampunk if it is steam but not coal as the workshop handout says because of course coal was what powered steam during the industrial revolution! (Am currently working through the handouts to decide if there are any not to be missed workshops!)

And Michelle W -- I love the ice cream analogy. It is so very apt.
It is also true that success begats success. Look at Silhouette that started as a four book a month line and now puts out what -- 48 books per month?

Laura Vivanco said...

I really hate it when characters start flaunting convention. It makes me wonder how you'd go about doing that. Perhaps you could have the convention embroidered onto a ribbon and then tie it round one of your sleeves.