A Tsunami Of Bath Sets – A Blast from the past from December 2011
*As I was re-reading this, it occurred to me that the “tsunami of bath salts” effect is also why ALL command and control economy doesn’t work in the end. If you can’t give good gifts to your friends, how can you determine what strangers will need much less want?*
I swear this is about publishing, so bear with me.
A quick post, as I slept very badly (for reasons having nothing to do with anything emotional. Just one of those nights.)
I hate having people give me gifts. I’ve mentioned this before, right? Oh, not everyone. There are exceptions. My husband, for instance, is one of those supernaturally good gift-givers. His gifts to me have ranged from a little glass owl to two pounds of cold cuts, and in each case they were exactly what I wanted.
On the other hand, the man has an ace in the hole – he can always give me a red rose and I melt. So… hard to go wrong.
There have been other superb gifts throughout my life, but most gifts fall in the category of the ones this guy blames on (and might be) Aspergers. Even when people know me – I think – relatively well, I find myself looking at something that , at best, I wouldn’t have looked at twice in the store, and feeling like I failed a test. Why feeling like I failed a test? Because… what did I do or say to give them the impression that I… Etc. When people don’t know me it can be worse.
I’ve found, for instance, that people latch onto something about me – not just in gift giving – and they seem to think that’s all of me. Like, conferences STILL put me (sometimes exclusively) on the “Shakespeare panels” or create them just for me, because they think it will please me. Do I like Shakespeare? Sure. It was one of my favorite things in college. To be honest, though, partly it was to escape reading the more modern stuff. Also, the study of his biography is fascinating. But I also enjoyed Jane Austen, I love Dumas and I did my master thesis on Flannery O’Connor. None of which, btw, compares to my obsessions with Heinlein, Simak, Pratchett, or even Rex Stout, Christie or Ellis Peters (And we won’t mention the Lord Meren series which I wish the author would self-publish and finish.) So, you know, it’s not like Shakespeare is the all consuming light of my days. And as for my trilogy on Shakespeare, well, it was in another publishing “country” and besides the series is dead. I might go back to it, but it’s about as relevant to my work life as Dumas and arguably less so than Heinlein.
So, you see why I have issues with receiving gifts? Not that I’m any better at giving them. Gifts I give fall into three categories: the gifts I KNOW the person needs. This is usually only my closest friends and relatives. Like, say, I know one of the kids needs new slippers. Then there’s the gifts I think people will like. Again, I’m only good at these if I know you REALLY well. Like, we’ve been friends for years with someone and know that this particular sparkly or that particular statuette is just right, or perhaps JUST ties in with something they’re writing. Or I know the type of chocolate they love. That sort of thing. Of course, it also helps if the person has a prominent hobby-interest that consumes their free time. Like knitting, or cooking or something. A lot of people do, but writers and my family tend to be more eclectic. After that there are “broad category gifts.” These work best for kids. If you buy a set of blocks, chances are a two year old will find a way to play with them. But after adolescence it becomes iffy.
I’ve never fallen into the “give someone something you want.” Well, not since I was ten and gave my brother the complete book of dinosaurs because that’s what I wanted. (He’s ten years older and was in college, in engineering.)
I’ve always assumed these gift dysfunctions, both giving and receiving, were peculiar to me, however, studies show that in fact, about 80% of gifts people receive fall into that “OMG, what am I going to do with this?” category. I think this is why there’s this rise of near-generic gift sets: bath sets with nice-smelling soap and cute towels. Or coffee sets, with mugs and a couple of generic-brews and biscoitti. That sort of thing. (And I shudder to think how many times the non-food ones [one hopes] change hands before finding someone who really, really wanted them.)
Which brings us to the publishing industry. I TOLD you we’d get there.
I will grant you that I’m not the best informed on the history of the business workings of our field. However, from reading biographies about the pulp days, it seems to me there were various niches. People who liked a certain kind of horror tended to read the output of a certain publisher, say. Same for sf and f. The closest we have to that is Analog, which could be called “science fiction for geeks.” (Guilty as charged.) And Baen which could be called “We’re okay with character, we like science/history accurate, but no plot no sale.” And that’s fine, too.
But both Baen and Analog have had fairly clear personal directions and hand-offs, while the rest of the field has been a fest of mergers, short-lived under editors (short lived in position, mind, not saying anything about lifespan) and such.
And the selections of the other editorial houses has been much like the result of getting gifts from strangers. I mean, most publishers these days have under-readers who are (beyond overworked and stressed) not of the field. They might have edited romance last week, they’re editing sf/f today. Most of them have never been to a con. They don’t know us. And then, it’s not just editors. In the major conglomerates these days, you can’t buy a book without “buy in” from the sales persons. And then after that, the sales people/distributors decide what they’ll push. To the extent that bookstores still get any say, they decide what to unpack or not. And most of the time, these people are not of us.
This seems particularly important for sf/f, but mind you, mystery readers have their quirks too. Romance is more of a broad church and might be easier to serve, or at least it has well known niches, which is kind of like a giftee having a hobby.
So, the kind of books that keep getting “push” and which used to be hits just by virtue of distribution – since both publishing and bookstores became conglomerates – were:
1 – the generic – i.e. “Spaceships/dragons, decent grammar. Those sf geeks will love it.”
2 – the repetitive – i.e. “It’s just like that Rowling chick we published last year and they loved that.”
3- catering to hobbies – i.e. “Well, I know tons of people like knitting. Let’s do knitting mysteries.”
4 – catering to fads – “there’s that series on TV about chicks, sex and shoes, let’s do all our mysteries about chicks, sex and shoes.”
5 – catering to general categories “this book will appeal to all the sexually frustrated middle aged housewives.”
6 – and finally “what I would like to read” – which works great, if you are a graduate from an Ivy League school about twenty five years old and interested in impressing people with how high brow you are. For the rest of us? Not so much.
And this is my answer to the “tsunami of crap” – crap by whose definition? Why do you think what’s crap to you is crap to other people? I tell you kids, reading romance has been an education and no, I’m not being snarky. More romance is competently written than sf or mystery, I hate to tell you. But because I’m a stranger to the field, I’ll pick a lot by the stuff that says on the covers. Like “Bestselling author.” And, OMG. Some of those books don’t rise to the level of “crap” to me, just on the historical errors. (Yes, I have a very specialized form of insanity. Why do you ask?) BUT they’re mega bestsellers, whose numbers would make an sf/f writer faint.
So… qui flusheth the crap? Who decides? WHY would you want someone to decide for you? Look, given my obsession with dinosaurs, give me a book on sentient dinosaurs, and I’ll forgive a multitude of sins. Are there enough of me for someone to make a living off it? Probably. Enough for a major house to make a profit when they have to print, distribute the book and MORE IMPORTANTLY convince the bookstores to carry the books? Probably not.
It might interest you to know that the same study on how inefficient people buying gifts for others were, also discovered that people buying for themselves were nearly 100% efficient. So, now that technology allows us to buy for ourselves, why shouldn’t we? And why shouldn’t we write/publish what we want to? Yeah, okay, that falls under giving people the gift you want. But look, you’re not that unique and you’re facing a VERY LARGE potential pool of book readers. (If I had a thousand brothers, say, and I gave each one the book on Dinos, it’s guaranteed that a few – maybe even a hundred – would have loved it.) You’re NOT that unique. So write for the people you know best – those a lot like yourself. And chances are you’ll be rewarded. Doubly, because you’ll be writing for enough people to make you rich, and because you’ll write what you want to.
And please don’t come back and say “but what about the books written in crayon and drool?” What, you think that doesn’t get published now? I remember a bestseller in the eighties that was bought even though it came to the publisher written in crayon on wrapping paper, and yes, I read it, there must have been drool on the edges, and probably obscene drawings. Publisher thought it was “refreshing.”
There is no OBJECTIVE standard for what’s crap in literature. If you think there is, you bought what they sold you in lit classes. And it wasn’t worth what you paid for it.
The standard for good is “what sells” in ANY form of entertainment. Might not be to your taste, but clearly it entertains other people. So, what business is it of yours.
And as for the famed tsunami, having experienced “Mega bookstore and not a book to buy” many, many times, I tell you “I’ve seen the tsunami, and it’s traditionally published.” Doubtless it will be indie published, too, as far as I’m concerned. But I’ll just hie my way among it, picking up from the muck those things that are diamonds to me. Now, you shut up and do likewise.