In spite of all the brouhaha about iPads, Kindles, Nooks, et al. I’m not seeing a lot of discussion about the actual content publishers plan to provide for these pricey little appliances.
That’s why I was fascinated by the piece in the Huffington Post this week from thriller writer Jason Pinter, arguing against the publishing industry dictum that “MEN DON’T READ.” He points out this is simply a self-fulfilling prophecy: don’t market to men; don’t publish what they like and—guess what? They don’t read!
He supports this by relating some of his own hair-raising experiences in the industry in the middle of the last decade. He describes being forced to pitch a manuscript for a wrestler’s memoir (which later became a bestseller) to the editor’s 15-year-old nephew. The editor said if the kid didn’t go for it, the project was dead. Yup. A 15-year-old was given power of life and death over a literary work.
And that was in economically booming 2005. It’s way worse now. The American publishing industry isn’t just anti-men. It’s becoming anti-adult.
I don’t think all those grown women are reading the Twilight books because they’re dying to relive their high school years. I think it’s because there isn’t much new commercial fiction being marketed to them. These days, if you want to find the hot new fiction, you pretty much have to move to the Young Adult aisle.
Yes, adults still have romances (although most are paranormal/fantasy, which don’t appeal to many women over 40) and the phenomenon that is Dan Brown. James Patterson still employs his stable of ghostwriters to grind out sadistic crime fiction, and every so often a fad sprouts up for something like Nordic misery mysteries or zombie mashups.
But when grown-ups want a light, smart read, we’re increasingly shuffled off to the backlist. How many times can we re-read Jane Austen?
If you look at the recent fiction sales on agents’ websites, they’re almost all YA, and most new agents rep YA/MG exclusively. At a writers’ conference recently, I was told publishing houses have been firing editors in adult genres and hiring specialists in children’s books.
Sophisticated humorists like Sophie Kinsella and Jennifer Weiner are dismissed as purveyors of totally-over “chick lit,” and bestselling US author Catherine Ryan Hyde has to go to England to get her adult fiction published.
This isn’t because American adults have stopped reading. It’s because publishers can make more money on one kidlit phenomenon like Twilight than with scores of traditional adult titles. In YA, the risks (& advances) are smaller, and the possible pay-out is astronomical. But other genres have been eliminated or left to stagnate. Big-name adult authors are expected to grind out cookie-cutter product and the rest of us are either supposed to switch to YA or take up basketweaving.
Don’t get me wrong. Some of the YA I’m reading is brilliant. But since I hated high school the first time around (I went to three—don’t ask) it’s not that much fun for me. I’ve published a couple of pieces in the genre, but I hesitate to start a novel for fear even that market will soon be oversaturated, and nothing will remain but a sign on the door of the entire industry saying,
“GONE TO TRAFALMADORE. HUMANS DON'T READ”*
To quote Mr. Pinter again, “if you keep telling yourself something, regardless of its validity, eventually you'll begin to believe it.”
Agent Rachel Zurakowski of Books and Such explained the industry thinking process in an April 21 post “the publishing industry is in a risk-averse period. They want to publish the books that will do well, maybe not great, but books that are almost guaranteed to make money for the company. These books come from authors they’ve published before or from ideas the publishing house specifically asks authors to write.”
In other words, the publishing industry is acting like the banking industry, which refuses to give anybody loans because of the bad economy—thus perpetuating the bad economy.
Meanwhile these fancy new e-readers offer us a cheap, lucrative venue for self-publishing. If traditional publishers don't screen and publicize new books in all genres, what are they good for? Isn't becoming irrelevant the biggest risk of all?
*For my theories on the reading habits of Trafalmadorians, check my guest post on Nathan Bransford’s blog.