Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The 80/20 Rule

In business, the 80/20 rule is often invoked; it says (roughly) that twenty percent of things do eighty percent of the work. Thus, 20% of a company's product line typically produces 80% of revenue. The rule has other applications, too: We wear 20% of our clothes 80% of the time (I know I do), perhaps play 20% of our CDs 80% of the time (me, again). So I got to wondering: Does the rule apply to SF? If so, how?

I think it does. Probably 20% of SFWA's members get 80% of public attention (which leads some very good writers to be neglected). Of my own work, 20% of it gets 80% of the attention (Confession: sometimes I get very sick of Beggars in Spain). Theodore Sturgeon once said that 90% of everything is crap. I think he was wrong (90% of people aren't crap, or flowers, or any number of other things.) But if the 80/20 rule does indeed apply to SF, then:

Should we pay that disproportionate amount of attention to that 20% of writers, of stories, of a given author's oeuvre? Or is this as wrong as I think Ted was with his numbers game?


TheOFloinn said...

Us Quality Assurance dudes know this as the Pareto Principle, so-named after Vilfredo Pareto, who observed that 80% of the wealth of Italy belonged to 20% of the Italians. The principle was called that by quality guru Joe Juran, who extended it to other things. 80% of scrap is due to 20% of the different kinds of defects. This is used as a focusing tool for quality improvement.

It doesn't always work out to exactly 80/20. At one time, by my calculation, 67% of yardage gained in the NFL was gained by 33% of the running backs. But one finds often, as Juran cited, that "80%" of malpractice suits in California were brought against "20%" of the doctors practicing there; and "80%" of traffic tickets in WashDC were written by "20%" of the cops.

The principle does not always apply. I found no significant differences in downtime on a cosmetic packaging line among products. But this only means that the category ("product") was not relevant to downtime. There was a maldistribution of downtime among equipments. A few machines accounted for most of the downtime.

As for movies....

Unknown said...

I don't think we should pay more attention to a smaller group of authors, but we do anyway. This is just sort of the publishing industry I suppose. If your name doesn't ring any bells with people, they're not going to pay attention. Everyone knows who John Scalzi is, but there are plenty of authors that nobody knows about who may be good or bad.

In an ideal world we would pay 100% attention to authors with talent and who write well and 0% to those that don't, but we can't live in such a fantasy world...I think it would violate the laws of nature and our planet would explode.

Nancy Kress said...

Once again, thank you for enlightenment. Is there anything you don't know? :) I'm consistently impressed!

James A. Ritchie said...

Good question. I guess I'd answer by saying that percentages mean little to me. I try to read as widely as possible, but it's the writers I love who get 99% of my attention.

I try to give as many new writers as possible a chance, but if I don't like what I read, and far more often than not, I don't, I'm not going to pay much attention to that writer. Life is too short to worry abouot percentages. Better to spend what little time we have on things we love.

I think Sturgeon was right, even if there are exceptions. Few rules are universal. He was, in my opinion, conservative about the quality of most things, including published writing in SF, or any other genre.

TheOFloinn said...

Once again, thank you for enlightenment. Is there anything you don't know? :) I'm consistently impressed!

You happened to stumble on a topic that is part of the toolkit on my day job. Should the subject of statistical inference ever arise, I can sound wise again. But for the techniques of fiction, I sit humbly at the feet of the masters.

none said...

Sometimes I think that J.K. Rowling gets 100% of the attention.

Daniel DiGriz said...

Here's an 80/20 project: a group of orphans needs to buy food sources that will keep producing food all year long (chickens, plants, fish, etc.). But what funds come in at such a slow rate, spread out over time, that they're forced to eat them in them in the form of rice (only rice) as the funds trickle in. If they could get funded all at once, it would change their ability to feed themselves.

How much do they need? $1000. Yep, a thousand dollars for the whole project. So, if 20 people sat down and figured out the cost of one night out: dinner/movie/coffee/dessert, and gave that amount this week, the project would be funded immediately, and these kids would be able to learn with full bellies, and keep on producing their own food. We'll never get 100 people to give $10 each. But if we can get 20% of those people (20 people) to give $50 each, they're funded.

Here's the project. I know it well, and have given to it before. Care to join me?

Oh, and pssst. Pass it on.