The ‘genre ghetto’ is economic, not stylistic

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.

Mr. Crace thinks that publishers are “playing it safe” with the same old names because it’s so hard to break new writers on the market:

“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.

10 thoughts on “The ‘genre ghetto’ is economic, not stylistic”

  1. Paul, very good thoughts indeed. Have been discussing something eerily similar – with specific respect to fantasy and fantastical fiction – over at The Genre Files these past couple of days…

    To answer your question on what the genre book-buying public gets to see in their local bookstore (with less depth of thought than it really deserves) – it depends almost entirely on the physical aspects of that bookstore.

    If they go into the Manchester Deansgate branch of Waterstone’s and go up the escalator to the first floor then yes, they’ll get to see a vast range of imports, small press material, you name it. But then Deansgate has about 30 cases (6 or 7 shelves to a case) of the stuff, plus table-space.

    But if they nip into WHSmith’s at Manchester Piccadilly station, they’ll see maybe Pratchett, maybe King, maybe Eddings or Feist if they have a new one out… it’s the age-old tyranny of the shelf, the limitations of physical display space; stores – especially smaller stores – can only stock what they have a reasonable expectation of selling, and for the majority, that means best-sellers.

    But all that should become largely irrelevant within a few years, once Internet shopping for items such as books and CDs becomes the norm, once bookstores like Waterstone’s are forced – by the rising costs of their overheads and falling value of their sales income – to reduce their number of stores to a fraction of their current number and focus more of their operations online.

    You’re absolutely right that we need new technologies to come in and fill the void in display-space that’s going to be created as a result, otherwise when the high-street collapse does happen, overall sales will inevitably dip.

    And at the end of the day, it’s always going to be a numbers game – publishers will only publish what they think will sell, or they will go out of business, simple as that. Which in a worse-case scenario leaves authors without a regular income themselves, at which point it’s the dedicated hobbyists, or the independently wealthy, who will be most prevalent.

    I do think that we’re moving in the right direction, with the wider appeal of blogging and more and more authors setting up effective online in which spaces to talk about their work and their wider interests. The township has been laid out but it’s all still more Deadwood than Metropolis – there’s still plenty to do yet, eh?

  2. I thought that the ghetto was the alternative township.

    We have our own system for getting into the industry (short stories and slush piles), we have our own imprints, we have our own magazines and we have our own blogosphere.

    The problem is that we don’t have our own general store. We’re largely separate from mainstream literature… what you’re talking about is that we move clear of the existing business of selling books.

  3. Regarding music in the late 80’s. I was a rocker (was?!), we had our own ghetto, maybe Iron Maiden made it onto Top Of The Pops every few years, but there was still a mass of bands about, very lively. Your average non-rocker would never have known. The popularity of Rock has risen and fallen, but it’s still about, and to many extents it’s still a ghetto.

    Similarities? Dunno.

  4. Thanks for the comments, folks. Jonathan and James, you’re both right – for the sake of brevity, I held back from unpacking that analogy too far … at the cost of clarity it would appear!

    So yes, rock music is still a ghetto, as are most of the explicitly non-commercial genres. But the emancipation of those scenes is gathering pace thanks to the ability of small labels (or even the artists on their own) stepping outside of the traditional reproduction and distribution machinery of the moribund industry. They’re smaller lighter outfits, and they can respond to their audiences far more effectively, have a genuine dialogue with them instead of handing down the product from a position of assumed authority.

    Now granted, it’ll take a long time for publishing to reach the same point, but the tools to beat a trail through the jungle are already available. What is needed is the pioneering spirit – a willingness to turn our backs on the cracked paving of the marketing highway, and take the product direct to the customer. There’s risk involved, for sure, but with risk comes the opportunity for genuine independent success on your own terms. Look at the way the music mainstream continually absorbs the innovations of the indie and alternative scenes – they can’t think that way for themselves, but they eventually recognise the need to change. As genre fiction is already a niche scene, we’re ideally placed to be in the vanguard of change – and I think I see signs that some of the small presses are already leading the way.

  5. I best not get started on this one, else I will have to turn on the tags.

    I completely agree with all of you, this is a major issue within genre and with a new wave of younger fans, readers and writers it is primed for a revolution.

    I don’t think people are willing to sit round and watch the publishing industry swallow itself whole like the music industry is currently doing. But someone or group needs to act and make people sit up and listen.

    Is there a solution, can the genre be saved by a few? Can genre divorce its un-wielding over bearing parent?

    My analogy is mainstream = pc, genre = mac. You cannot be everything to everyone, but you can be a strong, dynamic niche (a rather large niche at last count).

    I am currently doing some work for an independent genre publisher; I am very interested to hear what can and should be done to make a start.

  6. So yes, rock music is still a ghetto, as are most of the explicitly non-commercial genres.

    I don’t know. I think it’s more of a suburb than a ghetto… and that analogy extends to publishing as well, and is telling in and of itself.

  7. Of course, music has a distinct advantage over fiction, in the sense that it’s less time-consuming. It’s far easier to sample a couple of songs by twenty different artists and get a pretty good impression of which ones are worth pursuing further. But it would obviously take a lot longer to sample twenty different authors, even if you only tried a couple at a time.

    So I reckon any musical is probably a string of interlinked sub-genre conurbations with a reasonable efficient public transport system already in place. It’s just that the big music labels’ private taxi-cab fleet keeps erecting road-blocks and blowing up the tracks to try to force you to go private hire…

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