Monday, September 24, 2012

Genre Labels

Some MFA programs divide their students into Fiction, Non-fiction, and Poetry and label those as the genres they teach in.  To most of us genre is more granular and usually in the fiction domain.

Genres can be useful, but in postmodern literature (a label, perhaps a genre) they can simultaneously be misleading. Yet, many publishers and agents demand a genre label and even consider a good query letter one where the author understands their genre.

This really points more to the desperation of both agents and publishers to make marketing easy. OK, not so much easy, but easier and streamlined, and to some extent self-fulfilling.

As I go through the submissions each week, I try and avoid putting any manuscript into a firm genre category.  Yet, even as I avoid the traditional genre labels, I consciously have started to sort manuscripts by internal labels. Maybe they are “New Libri Genres.” This internal sorting matches up new manuscripts with our existing set of books. I am looking for patterns. Why? Because we have limited bandwidth, limited resources, and accepting manuscripts that have something in common with the READER of our existing manuscripts helps. Readers include reviewers. If I send a book to a reviewer who reviewed five our books, she will probably review the sixth one expecting it to have some commonality.

Yet, one of my favorite diatribes is the label science fiction, or fantasy. Why isn’t Never Let Me Go labeled a “science fiction?” Because Kazuo Ishiguro hates that label. He and his publisher know that the label will turn off prior readers of Remains of the Day. Despite staying away from the label the book was short listed for the Arthur C. Clarke award. Simultaneously, would Time Magazine have picked it as the best book of 2005 if it had been marketed at Science Fiction? Probably not.

Sure, the label “Science Fiction” has gained considerable credibility over the years, but it is still generally considered a literary smear.

In the Fantasy realm, the literary cop out is to label it Magical Realism. Gene Wolfe--considered by many to be one of America’s best writers (though far from the most popular even within Fantasy/Science Fiction)—famously said Magical Realism is Fantasy written in Spanish.

Yet, the label is useful.  If you hear magical realism, you probably won’t be picking up Twilight! The label is a short cut. It is useful if it is understood. The problem is with those books that you miss out on because you rely on the shortcut. “You” includes the agent, the publisher and the reader. Or, if you pick something up just because of the label. For instance the excellent book, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, has some interesting reviews on Amazon.  A significant number of people gave it one star. If you dig into those reviews, they hated the ending. If you dig into this some more you wonder if they read the descriptions and the labels.  It is a retelling of Hamlet and a good number of the critical reviewers hated that everyone died at the end (time to read Hamlet people). But, I think additionally, the label Magical Realism should have been applied. The other readers who hated it seemed to gravitate to the technique that David Wroblewski uses of magic, visions, ghosts, and potions. These were in Hamlet and fit in the Magical Realism sub-genre. The magic is just there. It is not brooded over. Readers might then have accepted it. Of course the issue was that the book also had one additional label: Oprah.  Oprah highlighted this book.

She also highlighted The Road. A post apocalypse novel, McCarthy certainly did not embrace the term “science fiction.” I would venture that many Oprah fans were also surprised at how dark the book was and the label as an Oprah book mislead them.

So, don’t ignore labels, but supplement them. The best way to supplement labels for books is to read a lot of them.  Then you can use the comparison label: This book is a magical realist permutation on Hamlet, with the feel of of Gene Wolf and Cormac McCarthy. A tragedy with characters that will haunt you for days. Now that will get me to read a few pages at least!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Stealing a headline: Can Publishing Really Be Replaced by a Button?

This headline came from Book Business in a “blurb” to promote a virtual publishing business conference. It is the topic Rory O’Connor will speak on at his keynote address.

I suppose I am a broken record on this (yes, the anachronism of “record” is intentional). The answer is “yes” if you feel publishing is simply making your writing available to random people.  Of course that was true when the first web page was put up, 21 years ago. Yeah, e-readers have changed things, but the concept isn’t all that much different, just the scale of adoption.

The question isn’t really “can it” but “should it” and “will it.”

I have been pretty blunt on the “should it” in past postings. It shouldn’t: for quality reasons, for author bandwidth reasons, for filtering reasons, and for editorial reasons. Market forces may ignore all those reasons. The market doesn’t give a damn about critics. It really doesn’t give a damn about whether authors (or publishers) make money or not. In the end, it may not even care whether Amazon exists or not.

Hell, Google (or Bing) could simply put out a standard that anyone with a webpage can post a compliant ePub and links to a payment system and Google (Bing) would have a special search (say “<genre>” or “<author>”) and all books show up in the search, with their cover and price and a way to buy it. No Amazon. No B&N. No publisher.

Note to patent trolls. This idea is now “public.”

Think of this as the Amazon model in extreme. Amazon already deals with spam books (same book published over and over with different names, a few paragraphs changed etc.) There is already no quality control on CONTENT (forget the formatting, that is easy).

What will happen, if we go this route (and it is certainly possible), is that publishing will actually become a marketing agency for the very successful authors.

This is an extension of the “minor league” theory thrown out in yesterday’s blog. The new “marketing publisher” will simply troll the eco-system and see what is selling above a certain level. No real regard to quality. No need to publish “risky” books at all. No wasted advances. Focus only on what is already selling and promote the hell out of it. University presses may still put out a few as budget permits, ensuring some quality for specialized niches.

What’s the difference between that model and the current model, you may say. The current model allows publishers to subsidize many new authors and take a chance on them. The current model also allows small publishers to focus on their passions and grow their niche. The new model encourages authors to self publish and this eliminates the need and the opportunity for a publisher. The consumer may not really care, if current trends hold true. The average author may not care either. Writing is usually a passion, not a method of making a lot of money. Under this model a lot of authors will make a little money, more authors will make almost a living, and mega authors will continue to exist, but will be a more volatile group (i.e. the members of the group will change more frequently than currently). I can’t say this is bad per se, but I feel that the quality by yesterday’s standards will decrease as a statistical average (certainly produced, but also consumed).

So, yes, it can be replaced by a button. I hope it doesn’t, but if I have learned anything in 22 years in technology, hope has little to do with things. Neither does the best “technology.” The market will move in its own direction. Along the way, I hope we can publish (as a publisher!) a few good books and maybe as time permits I can write a few too! If you are an author: Enjoy The Ride, I expect turbulence ahead.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Response to “Publishing is Broken” blog.

I read an excellent blog/article today on

Publishing Is Broken, We're Drowning In Indie Books - And That's A Good Thing

This is a (great) six page discussion on indie/self publishing and it hits on a recurring theme of mine, which is we need more reviewers (filters) that are trusted sources for independently published books (which category I include micro-publishers such as New Libri). Before going to that theme (reviews), I would like to digress to another point David Vinjamuri raises: “Mainstream authors …  are inclined to believe that publishing is a meritocracy where the best work by the most diligent writers gets represented, acquired, published and sold.”

First, any mainstream authors who stumble on this blog and vehemently disagree—save your breath, I know that not ALL mainstream authors feel this way. Vinjamuri gives quotable examples. This attitude pervades even MFA programs. It simply is not true. History is littered with authors who were diligent and good and only come to light after their death. Independent publishers (micro and self) provide an outlet for excellent books. They may not sell, but I think that is partially due to the prime subject of this blog. How to get noticed (with reviews) in a vast sea of … mediocrity.

The short answer is “I don’t know” and no one does.

Vinjamuri alludes to another theme I often bring up. Publishing (writing) is NOT the same as the music industry, despite everyone seeing eBooks as similar to MP3s and the industry shaking up in similar ways.  When was the last time you went to a bar to listen to an independent author read?  Vinjamuri notes that: “You don’t hear Christina Aguilera or Adam Levine knocking indie bands. Instead they joined a show called “The Voice” which aims to capitalize on the credibility of indie artists by finding journeyman artists and giving them a shot at major label contracts. Indie filmmakers are revered, not reviled, partly because they eschew the studio system and its constraints on artistic expression.”

Vinjamuri suggests a Rotten Tomatoes for books. Maybe. Goodreads comes close, in some ways. Even Amazon with its super reviewers comes close.  The difference (which Vinjamuri does not really discuss) is that even a Rotten Tomatoes can handle, say, a thousand movies a year. Could it handle 200,000?  There are a lot of self published books out there. The entire set of books for sale is now the “slush pile.”

Price is not a real criteria. Many indie books are overpriced, many mainstream publisher books are now becoming reasonably priced (especially mid-sized publishers).

Everyone points to “social media” as the solution. Pahleeze! Most really good fiction authors are similar to really good software programmers, they suck at social anything (I know there are exceptions, but as a tech geek and writer, I certainly fit the bill myself). This makes Vinjamuri’s prediction that “Mainstream Publishers Will Use Indie Publishing as a Minor League … And Find a New Profit Model” a bit scary. Because, he admits the criteria of picking a book out of that minor league is how well the author plays the social media game. I hope he is wrong. What I hope is that the tiny micro presses (not self publishing) act as the minor leagues.  If an author passes the bar with the micro press, who has skin in the game, then the author should be worth a second look. Somehow the big publisher should find a way to subsidize the small publisher for this work. Authors—persistent authors—will stay with the micro press because just like a baseball minor league player, they love the game and will play no matter what. In this respect I hope Vinjamuri is right, that the minor league exists, but I hope it is not a social media contest!