My attention was caught by a sonorous opinion piece from John Crace at The Guardian today, and so I shall use it for one of the periodical grindings of my personal axe – the need for genre fiction to embrace new technology before waiting for the rest of the book industry to catch on.
“Take a look at the bestseller lists and you can see it’s the same old, same old that dominate. Literary fiction is still lorded over by your Ian McEwans, Zadie Smiths, Graham Swifts and Sebastian Faulkses; crime and thrillers still come courtesy of Ian Rankin, PD James, Michael Connelly and Tom Clancy; and non-fiction is still in the hands of any celeb or politician who can fool a publisher into overpaying for their memoirs.
The picture is actually even bleaker than it looks. It’s not just that publishers have been a bit slow on the new technology uptake and are playing catch-up with the music business; off the record – as it were – most publishers will now admit it’s harder than ever to break new writers and are increasingly unwilling to give them a chance.”
Genre fiction is lucky in this respect, thanks to our still-active short fiction markets. A lot of genre writers have short stories that they can use as self-promo giveaways (the writer’s equivalent to the MySpace tracks) before having sold a book to a publisher; I get the impression that the same situation doesn’t prevail with the stuff of the bestseller lists. But back to Crace again:
“You don’t have to spend a great deal of money selling these brands as the punters pretty much know what they’re going to get and, given the incredibly tight margins on most books – very few books earn out their advance – it pays to be safe and reliable.
This way everyone makes money: publishers, booksellers and authors – at least the top 10% who scoop up more than 50% of the available pot. What’s more, the bookseller chains get to make a nice little earner on top by charging publishers extra for displaying the books at the front of the store. In any other business this would be called a cartel. A medium that was once the springboard for radicalism is in danger of dying of conservatism.”
Now, I don’t read much mainstream fiction, so I can’t comment on the conservatism of the actual works on sale. But Crace’s point about the same names still hogging the shelves is borne out by my experience, with writers my father was reading during my childhood still routinely parking themselves at the top of the lists with each subsequent novel.
This reminds me of the music industry at the end of the 80s, just before the falling price of recording equipment and duplication services started building the coffin into which the internet is now cheerfully banging the nails … but I digress, and that’s a post for another time, perhaps.
But what I’m curious about is whether or not this same problem applies to genre, when considered as a discreet sub-set of the book business. If I think about it, the names of loads of up-and-coming authors on the genre scene leap to mind – but then, I read countless genre-related blogs every day, so I’m bound to know. The question is, does the genre book buyer stood in Waterstones or browsing Amazon see a lively scene full of fresh talents, or do they see the same old Asimov / Heinlein / Tolkein / Eddings selection?
This strikes me as an important question, but it’s one that, by definition, most of the genre blogosphere can’t answer for themselves. We’re too close to the action. We need an outside perspective. We need to know how genre readers who are not an active part of fandom, internet or otherwise, see the scene as represented to them as an array of purchasing choices – and how satisfying that range of choices is to them.
The question is, how do we find that out? Is it even possible? And if we can find that out, how can we act on the information effectively? As Crace points out, the real problem is at the vendor end of things – the business of marketing and selling books is almost entirely disconnected from the business of writing and editing them. This means the niche markets suffer the most, because their slimmer margins don’t offer the same returns that the “same old same old” does – and so they get pushed aside.
(At this point you’re supposed to think “oh, just like the music business in the late 80s”, but I’ll forgive you if you didn’t – I did try to foreshadow it, albeit in a very clumsy way.)
Look: mainstream publishing is a monoculture. Genre has always been somewhat of an independent annexe to it, and I think that in the long run its future survival is dependent on that becoming more the case than less. All the technological tools are available for those with the foresight and courage to use them. Why should we be content to sulk in a ghetto of a city collapsing under the weight of its own architecture, when we could just step out onto the plains outside and build our own town, with its own networks, economy and culture? We don’t need the big-city infrastructure any more. It’s holding us back. And who knows, we might even attract more new citizens if we’re not competing directly with the metropolis on its own turf.