Tag Archives: bookstores

Writing: The Ghettoization of Speculative Fiction?

CBC, ghettoizing SF, bad science fiction, badly written fantasy

From a 50s B-movie. Unfortunately some people think SF novels are still like this.

Yesterday on CBC Radio’s Q, Jian Ghomeshi talked with Clive Thompson about the ghettoization of speculative fiction or whether William Gibson was the next Tolstoy. Thompson was extolling the virtues of SF, sort of. Or damning with faint praise. Below is the response that I sent, which I also put here in case CBC decides they have moral rights on my opinion.

Dear Jian,

 

I’m not quite sure what to make of the speaker Clive Thompson you had on talking about SF, science fiction, or speculative fiction since it encompassed both science fiction and fantasy works.

 

I write here as an individual but also as the president of SF Canada whose members consist of professional writers and others in the speculative fiction community. I missed the first part of Thompson’s conversation but I also express here views of the members of SF Canada.

 

Although Clive was supposed to be regaling the virtues of SF, he sounded uninformed in many ways. As a reader he seemed to exhibit huge gaps in knowledge when he said that most SF is badly written, misogynistic, dominated by men. And he gave Heinlein and Dick as examples. Robert Heinlein and Phillip K. Dick were in their heyday in the 60s and 70s; that’s at least 30-40 years ago. Taken in context, Heinlein was no different than many authors (whether SF or not) of the day, and some of his views on relationships were far reaching for the time.

 

Thompson did mention Cory Doctorow, who is a Canadian but there was a huge gap in between. (Doctorow’s book has been nominated for this year’s Nebula awards.) Some of the bigger names in speculative fiction may be men but there are many women writing and of merit: Ursula Le Guin, Kij Johnson, Pat Cadigan, Pat Murphy (of old, Andre Norton, James Tiptree, Anne McCaffery), Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Kris Rusch, Nalo Hopkinson, etc.

 

If he was talking Canadian speculative fiction, then he was all over the map with his observations so I must presume this was about SF in general. There is very little that is published these days that would be misogynistic unless it was showing a particular culture. Much is extremely well written and if you ask Michael Chabon, winner of both SF awards and the Pulitzer, he places more value on his SF awards.

 

Basically Thompson picked some of the worst or most dated examples for his points. It would have been better to see more current knowledge that goes beyond Margaret Atwood.

 

As for ghettoization, well there is good and bad writing in all genres. He spoke about the issue of whether one would place Oryx & Crake on literary or SF shelves and how it was confusing for publishers. I spent 20 years in the book industry as book rep and book buyer (for a store). This doesn’t confuse the publishers as they are the ones that came up with the categories through their marketing departments. A book will be marketed to the group that they think will buy the most copies. The cover will be changed accordingly. So in essence it is the publisher that has ghettoized all genres.

 

As to the attitude toward SF, well it depends. What sells the best in movie theatres, and is often based off of a book? There is indeed a snobby attitude that only literary is real writing and many of those writers who do write speculative stories adamantly say that it is not of that ilk. My creative writing degree did not include speculative fiction because of the attitude at the university that the only good writer was a dead white man. I would argue that erotic fiction and romances have a lower spot in the old world thinker’s eyes of “genre” and ghettoization, even though they may sell better. Harlequin romances have some of the highest sell-through rates of any books. Are they good? I don’t know as I haven’t read one.

 

Thompson also mentioned that SF is doing quite well. On one level yes, on another, not so much. Fantasy still outsells science fiction and in many cases editors are begging for science fiction stories. But sales of speculative fiction? Yes, the Harry Potter series can speak to that.

 

Next time, when talking about SF and whether William Gibson (an expat American living in Canada) is the next Tolstoy, it would be great to have someone up to date on current speculative fiction trends. Heck, try Neil Gaiman who you talked with a couple of weeks ago, or contact SF Canada and we’ll send you a boatload of opinions by Canadians.

 

Regards,

Colleen Anderson

President

SF Canada

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The Demise of Bookstores

I spent many many years working as a book buyer in a bookstore. It was a bookstore specializing in science fiction and fantasy, as well as books to do with cartoons, animation, fantasy art and genre films. I used to know every book coming out. The bookstore was mostly a comic book store that had the book area as well as the gaming area, which had started with Dungeons & Dragons.

The comics branched into all sorts of merchandise, made hugely popular by Todd McFarlane and his toys and of course his Spawn comic creation. Dungeons & Dragonsexpanded into numerous other roleplaying games and became predominated by Warhammer. The books, well they went the way of the dinosaurs when the owner decided they weren’t profitable.

Of course the reasoning was faulty because most bookstores keep their regular customers coming in by buying the new monthly releases. All publishers have new releases and most of the major ones have both paperback and hardcovers, with the larger and more popular selections coming out before the seasonal holidays and the second largest for the ending of the school year (usually the college year but coinciding with summer as well).

The owner didn’t pay his bills on time, which meant the mass market monthly releases didn’t come out and though some people were always buying the older books (series) too, many shoppers read all the new books every month. It was a flawed logic but it still killed the book aspect of the store, except for the art books.

Over those years there were fights by many independent booksellers to protect their rights. The megastores like Chapters came along and got super deep discounts from the publisher, which meant they could lower the price of their books. Whereas the small independent bookstore would buy maybe 25 instead of 2500 of a book and couldn’t lower the price. The difference in the two types of store is that the bigger chain stores often had staff who knew nothing about books and a new book remained on the shelf for two weeks only, then was stripped and sent back. (stripping is where the cover is removed from the paperback and returned for credit since returning the cheaply printed books is not economically feasible).

The small bookstore would tend to keep a larger variety of titles on the shelf for longer, perhaps specializing in genres (antiquarian, fantasy/sf, crime/mystery, religious), and the staff would be highly knowledgeable, as well as lovers of reading themselves. But how does a little mom and pop operation compete against a corporation with business men drawing up plans for increasing revenues? They can’t and most bookstore owners do it for love, hoping they can survive, pay the rent and maybe live off the proceeds. You don’t get rich running a bookstore.

The independent booksellers had to band together across Canada to keep themselves from sinking. It worked…to a degree. In Vancouver, of the three bookstores that specialized in science fiction and fantasy (The Comicshop, Granville Books, and White Dwarf Books) only one survives, White Dwarf. Chapters expanded their sections somewhat but you’ll be hard pressed to find something really odd or obscure, or an older series but an other than top list author, unless you go to White Dwarf.

It is a constant threat and on top of the big box stores these days, there is Amazon, with their big discounts. Unfortunately people are looking more for the discounts and saving a buck or two (that they may then pay in shipping) and foregoing service and knowledgeable staff. I’ll always be a champion of the little independent store whether it’s selling pet food or books. To me, the homogenization of our society into sameness and banality will kill individual thought and creativity.

Maybe we are heading toward a completely electronic society, but not yet. With the economic crunch, it will be the demise of some bookstores and this article is worrying. http://www.cbc.ca/arts/books/story/2009/02/02/bookexpo-cancelled.html This happens again and again and will happen yet again, but a plus note is that booksellers are tenacious and hopefully book lovers will survive. Here’s to the little guy, the underdog and a search for the unique shopping experience in the world of mass merchandising.

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Writing: Bitter Writer?

Back in September I wrote the blog Writing: Things to Watch Out For https://colleenanderson.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=445 On my other blog I received a letter titled “Bitter Writer Syndrome” a while back but didn’t get time to comment until now. Well, I pissed off Mr. Hobbes, and he was correct in that I presumed he was the head of Hobbes End Publishing, but at the time when I did research through the internet I didn’t find that information. Hobbes End website now mentions that Jairus Reddy is the publisher. http://hobbesendpublishing.com/index.html

So let’s look at Mr. Hobbes’ comments. (I have posted his full letter at the end so I can’t be accused of unfavorable editing.) “Being paid for one’s writing (rare in the industry) is not prostitution, but professionalism.” It is a matter of perspective and really we can all say we prostitute ourselves whenever we sell something for money, whether our services or our art. Of course what I meant was, selling oneself too cheaply. And yes, new writers do need to start somewhere and $100 is decent for 1,500 words but not for 30,000. Being paid for one’s writing is not rare in the industry. Book publishers, respectable book publishers, do it all the time. Just ask Random House, Bantam, Tor, Baen or any of the big name speculative publishers (or mainstream too).

Then he says: “The reason publishers ask for all rights is something that might be above your understanding.” It’s very well within my understanding and what Mr. Hobbes does not know is that in fact respectable publishers, as the ones named above do not take all rights. In fact, you can look at many smaller publishers such as Edge Publishing, Bundoran Press, Nightshade Books, etc. and none of them take all rights. I think it is he who is under the veil of misunderstanding.

Next he comments that the anthology he is editing “will also be highly publicized and promoted, which I can say most publishers don’t do. Many thousands of dollars will be spent doing so. Also, since you have not read our contract, you wouldn’t know what offers we are making towards secondary rights.” Any publisher who wants to stay in business promotes. But let’s look at Mr. Hobbes’ (along with authors Benoit and Palmer) first book Exiles in Time: The Contrived Senator. I did a google search of his name and the two titles for the book. I found the publisher’s website and of course the book listed on various online bookselling sites, such as Amazon. Granted that advertising also means ads in magazines, other print formats and local areas, I can’t know how much the publisher has put into this book. But of the four reviews on Amazon for the book, two were by the Reddys, owners of Hobbes End. I could find no review anywhere else and certainly not on any of the normal SF review sites. So uh, highly publicized? I also have to wonder what could possibly be their “secondary rights” after they’ve taken all of the rights. That’s a mystery that Mr. Hobbes didn’t elucidate.

“You mention, over and over again, magazines. However, this is not a magazine. This is for a novel.” That’s even sadder, taking all rights on a 30,000 word story as opposed to a 200 word article, not that one is better than the other. And I did, in my post, talk about publishers of magazines and books, who really don’t take all rights except for a few exceptions. He also says: “The financial risk is to the publisher—the opportunity is to the writer. Unlike a magazine, which is taken off the shelves monthly, this one will stay in publication indefinitely.” Except the writer also has a financial risk in trying to sell their work and get paid what they’re worth. And Mr. Hobbes is wrong. Books in chain stores also get taken off the shelves monthly or even after two weeks. Places like Chapters will keep a small smattering of some titles. Privately owned bookstores will keep books longer on the shelves and likewise for magazines that may not be monthly; some of them will keep these till they sell them all. It varies. The only guarantee is to have your book on Amazon, listed with thousands of others, whether self-published, small press published or major book published.

Mr. Hobbes added: “However, I have seven more [books] coming out next year, three of which are through major publishers.” I did a search and have found nothing listed but I no longer get the sneak previews into the upcoming  lists as I did when I was a book buyer. However, nothing is listed except the co-authored books on the Hobbes End site. I’ve found no other info. I have no idea what the quality of the writing is in these books or where else he’ll be published. Eventually, I’m sure we’ll see the lists and it’s up to each person what they think of a story. That is very prolific and Mr. Hobbes should be congratulated on completing three books plus the co-authoring of the others (which he didn’t mention they were co-authored).

He ends with a good thrust: “It sounds as if you suffer from ‘Bitter Writer Syndrome’. It happens to the best of writers who don’t seem to understand the risks publishers take to make it in the industry. Blaming publishers for not paying them ‘what they are worth’ is curable. If you want to ‘make it’ in this industry, I suggest you research before you post such nonsense.”

 Bitter writer? Nah. I’ve published enough and work on my novel. I’m about where my energies have taken me. And I’m afraid I understand the industry much better than Mr. Hobbes does and I know that buying all rights is not the norm nor fair. Buying all rights in perpetuity for a hundred bucks is not something I would ever do, even if I was selling my first piece. And over the years of selling pieces I have been careful not to sell to such rights. It’s one reason I pulled my poem from Sotto Voce, because I could not agree to their selection of rights.

As I said before, each person must make their own decision on what to give away and what to sell, and for how much. I do apologize to Mr. Hobbes for saying he owned the company but I would also suggest that perhaps he was just a bit bitter himself about my comments. And in reality, it all boils down to taking all rights which I caution writers to think more than twice about before they do it. But I don’t think I’ll be submitting to Hobbes End, not that they’d buy anything from me now anyways. 🙂

Bitter Writer Syndrome?

In response to your blog, “Things to Watch out for”—

You begin by stating that $100.00 is not a fair price. Everyone who has submitted thus far has had no issue with making money for their writing. Few writers do, and the intent with this project is to help out first time authors. Being paid for one’s writing (rare in the industry) is not prostitution, but professionalism.

The ad is clear and any writer who has a problem with ‘all rights’ is welcome to not submit. The reason publishers ask for all rights is something that might be above your understanding. The financial burden taken on by publishers is insane. Editors, printing, distribution and promotions add up. A writer is always welcome to self-publish if he or she worries about such things.

Each of our writers for this anthology will receive credit for their work. They will also be highly publicized and promoted, which I can say most publishers don’t do. Many thousands of dollars will be spent doing so. Also, since you have not read our contract, you wouldn’t know what offers we are making towards secondary rights.

Hobbes End Publishing is not a new publishing company. And your comment about ‘pros not submitting’ is uncalled for, since the point of this project is not for the pros, but for new writers.

You mention, over and over again, magazines. However, this is not a magazine. This is for a novel. It will receive major distribution and advertising. This will not only give authors opportunity to break into the industry, but give them the chance that other publishers, and magazines, don’t allow. The financial risk is to the publisher—the opportunity is to the writer. Unlike a magazine, which is taken off the shelves monthly, this one will stay in publication indefinitely.

What you should be complaining about are the publishers who make writer’s pay for their work to be published.

I have had one novel published by Hobbes End Publishing, you are correct. However, I have seven more coming out next year, three of which are through major publishers.

Also, make sure to check your facts. I have no ties to Hobbes End Publishing, with the exception of writing for them. I am not an owner and in no way control their agreements amongst writers. Please check your facts before stating what you do not know about. The company was simply named after a story I wrote.

It sounds as if you suffer from ‘Bitter Writer Syndrome’. It happens to the best of writers who don’t seem to understand the risks publishers take to make it in the industry. Blaming publishers for not paying them ‘what they are worth’ is curable.

If you want to ‘make it’ in this industry, I suggest you research before you post such nonsense.

Sincerely,
Vincent Hobbes

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