What Readers WON’T Miss about Corporate Book Publishers When They’re Gone.

Last week the Wall Street Journal published an article by Eric Felten called “Cherish the Book Publishers—You’ll Miss Them When They’re Gone” .

A lot of self-published writers responded with suitable outrage and derision. You can read Konrath’s “Tsunami of Crap” rebuttal here. But what offended me was not only Mr. Felten’s condescending attitude toward self-publishers, but his scorn for readers.

His argument was that, although some indie publishers may be making “earnest efforts,” the rest are unscrupulous scammers who are “creating books by the ream merely by grabbing a few pages of text from websites and dumping them into ultraquickie e-books.” 

He’s sure the readers of the world will rush en masse to Amazon to buy scores of un-previewed copies of  non-books without noticing they have no content.

Without our ever-watchful Big-Six Brothers, Mr. Felten fears, we’ll become brainless book-scarfing zombies, consuming everything on offer in the moldering pile of dreck that is Amazon.com.

Yup. I’d sure miss having a bunch of corporate guys in New York telling me what to read. How would I know I love zombipocalypses and dystopian steampunk this year if nice Mr. Simon and Mr. Schuster hadn’t told me?

And even worse, when those poor corporate publishing conglomerates get driven out of business by the evil Kindle-insurgents (not that I’m sure that’s going to happen) the mindless reading public might start buying some of those genres the Big Six have pronounced “dead.”

In fact—I hope this doesn’t shock youthere is evidence this kind of literary necrophilia is already happening in the dark corners of Cyberia as we speak.

Yes, it's true: customers who are forced to vet their own books are allowing these zombie genres to attack their brains. Here are a few:

Westerns: Westerns are as defunct as Buffalo Bill—everybody knows that. The last bookstore where I worked insisted we shelve the small collection of westerns on the bottom shelf of the darkest corner in the back, because “nobody buys them.”

So every time an adult male would come in, looking a bit lost, I’d ask if he was looking for the westerns. His face would light up and he’d go forage in the darkness and emerge with three or four titles (usually saying he’d have bought more if squatting to look at that low shelf weren’t so hard on his knees.) We could never keep the inventory stocked. So eventually, there were no more westerns in the store. So our western sales numbers plummeted. Which proved they don’t sell, right?

But, um, remember that John Locke guy—the one who just sold a million self-pubbed titles? Guess what he writes.

Yup. Westerns.

Chick Lit: It’s axiomatic that everybody hates Chick Lit. Except, well…chicks. Women love romantic comedies. But because the Big Six overbought a bunch of inferior Bridget Jones-wannabes in the middle of the last decade, the genre has been deemed as out-of-date as a pair of 70’s platform shoes.

But oh, gee: one of the first self e-pubbed books the idiot readers made #1 on Amazon was Elisa Lorello’s romantic comedy, Faking It. Amazon Encore has since launched Faking It as well as many other Lorello comedies in paper and she now has a very nice career.

And with the indie revolution, scores of websites like Chick Lit is Not Dead, Chick Lit Central the Blog  review great romantic comedies weekly. Most of the books are self-published. That’s where I found the fantastic books of indie superstar, Sibel Hodge who has re-invented the 1930’s style screwball comedy/mystery—proving chicks can be funny and smart, too.

Sexy Commercial Fiction: Remember big, sexy, guilty-pleasure beach books? They were pulpy, fun fiction for grown-ups that didn’t involve either the high school prom or gruesome child-rape-murders as a central plot device. From Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place, to Jacqueline Susann and Judith Kranz, then Ruth Harris, Olivia Goldsmith and Terry McMillan, the 20th century provided big, yummy books to shock a little and entertain a lot. They were favorite companions for beach and travel or escape from almost anything. There were no vampires, werewolves or Halloween creatures of any kind. The only man-eaters were busty blondes with dark pasts. The books appealed to women of all ages. Even some men.

When was the last time you found a book remotely like them offered by a Big Six publisher? But guess what? Ruth Harris has re-released her 80s and 90s titles on Kindle and they’ve been consistently top sellers ever since. I sure hope we get more.

Unsentimental Women’s Fiction: Oprah’s book club did much to promote women’s fiction of a particular heartfelt, victimized-woman variety. But the scramble for the magic Oprah stamp-of-approval meant that tougher, funnier, more ironic women’s fiction fell by the wayside. Oprah’s club is gone now, but I don't see the return of the books it pushed aside. Will indie publishing provide us with our next Dorothy Parker, Muriel Spark, Fay Weldon, or Erica Jong?

I sure hope so. Erica Jong herself friended me on Twitter last week. Kind of made my day. She has a sexy new book out called Sugar in my Bowl. OK, it's nonfiction, and it's a collection of essays by 26 women writers. But I’m going to take that as a sign that her tough, sexy attitude may return to the mainstream of women’s fiction. As she said, “The trick is not how much pain you feel—but how much joy you feel. Any idiot can feel pain. Life is full of excuses to feel pain, excuses not to live.”

Crime Novels that skip the torture-porn: Anybody who’s ever worked in a bookstore knows that most book buyers are women over fifty. They’re always asking for something new and exciting. But they usually ask that it not be gruesome. For some reason, a lot of women don’t find rape and torture of other women that entertaining. But they still enjoy an exciting mystery or thriller.

Self-publishers can now provide an alternative to the books churned out by the writing stable that is known as James Patterson. (Although Patterson-brand fans will be happy to know that he sold his next 13 books this week—all of which will debut before 2014.)

Reality-based romance: Older romance fans are not as likely to fantasize about having sex with characters in children’s fairy tales as the younger set. They tend to prefer romance novels with a little more plotting and a little less boinking, but they don’t necessarily want preachy religious fiction.

So what? Nobody cares if Grandma buys books, do they? Well, um, maybe somebody does. I’ve heard a new ebook company is going to re-release the “sweet” romances of the 80s and 90s. Big sales predicted to new retirees, who are going to be in the market for a lot of reading material.

So—sorry Mr. Felden—I’m not going to miss having the marketing departments of a handful of New York companies telling me what I’m allowed to read.

I don’t mean to say that the Big Six don’t publish fantastic books in the approved genres. Their authors worked very, very hard to get those great book deals.

Thing is: these days, the writers getting the great book deals are increasingly starting out as those “earnest” self-pubbed authors Mr. Felten showers with condescension.

Like Mark Edwards and Louise Voss, who have had phenomenal success in the UK in the last few months with their self-pubbed thrillers Killing Cupid and Catch Your Death. This week they have signed a big deal with Harper Collins. There’s an inspiring write-up on their success from fellow Kindle bestseller Mark Williams at his blog this week.

As Mark says, “funny thing about the gatekeepers.  They claim to be protecting us from the drivel that self-publishers stick on Amazon. Yet the moment that ‘drivel’ starts to sell it suddenly acquires some hitherto non-existent star quality that the gatekeepers are desperate to get the rights to.”

In other good publishing news: literary Author Samuel Park—a regular visitor to this blog—has had his new novel This Burns My Heart (Simon and Schuster, debuts July 12, 2011) selected as one of the Best Books of July by Amazon. 

How about you, fellow bookpersons? Are there book genres you remember fondly that have disappeared from the shelves? What genre would you like to see brought back from the dead?
Next Sunday, we’ll have a guest post from a writer who is hedging her bets and taking all three publishing paths: Big Six, small press, AND indie. Kim Wright is the author of Love in Mid Air   (Grand Central: paperback release July 14, 2011), and she’s got a nonfiction book coming out in September, as well as a self-pubbed chick lit series (I can’t wait!) She’s going to give us the skinny about all three experiences in her post next Sunday.

And mid-week, on July 13th, we’re going to have a Very Special Return Engagement by bestselling thriller writer Jeff Carlson  Jeff is going to talk about Amazon reviews. Especially the snarky ones. You know—those people who look at the world through “demon-colored glasses.” It’s a must-read. So do stop by on Wednesday.

Also: tomorrow, Monday the 11th, I'll be guest blogging for Fois in the City on her blog Ramblings from the Left. I'll be talking about how blogging improved my life.

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