Ink-Stained Scribe

Yet Another Reason I Hate Math

So, I've been reading some of the old blogs by Holly Lisle, and this article really hit a note with me. It's about the chain-bookstore practice of "ordering to the net", which means, as I understand it from her article, that the chain bookstores order so few copies of the mid-list author's first book that, even if 90% of those copies are sold, the sales number is still so small that the book will not be re-ordered. The subsequent title from the same author will be ordered in half the quantity of the first, dooming it to the same fate. The third book (if the author's editor even options one, or if the author's contract is a three-book deal)Only by the miracle of word-of-mouth and customer orders can a mid-list book rise from the death spiral and achieve success.

What a dark outlook. Sadly, it's likely a true and necessary one. It makes sense for the chain bookstore to employ a computerized formula to deal with the sheer volume of titles it orders. Without actual human beings to notice and override this method of ordering, mid-list authors' careers are doomed from the get-go by sheer math.

I knew there was a reason I hated math.

No. Actually, I don't hate math, and it's not the fault of mathematics that mid-list authors are having such a rough time of it. It's the size that's the problem (and that is, indeed, what she said). When you build something too big, it falls down. It wastes energy. It doesn't cook through in the middle. There are methods of treating the various problems--finding the right material, finding alternative energy sources, adjusting the temperature and cooking time. The problem is that chain bookstore corporate cheeses aren't interested in cooking it through, conserving energy, or *ahem* keeping it up. Big-list titles bring in the bucks, and as long as the numbers are right, nobody sees a problem.

Except everyone outside the system. And I include chain booksellers among that number outside the system. Having been a bookseller once before, I did my part to find the obscure titles I enjoyed and recommend them. The Dorothy Dunnets and Philippa Ballentines of the day. Unfortunately, the efforts of a single bookseller aren't enough. The efforts of thousands of booksellers don't seem to be enough, unless those booksellers are hand-selling and recommending the same title.

From a writer's standpoint, the situation imposed by "ordering to the net" is daunting indeed. Holly Lisle nicknamed the post "How to Kill a Career in Three Easy Books", and backs it all up with logic. I'd kind of like to see some citations, but she's an excellent source in her own right, so I'm inclined to take her word for it.

The bigger issue, at least if one is trying to appeal to the corporate cheeses, is the problem as viewed from a readers' standpoint.

I'm sure everyone noticed the wave of supernatural fantasy after the release of Twilight. I mean, there was always supernatural fantasy, but never in such an overwhelming volume as now. Now, I have several friends who are happy enough with the trend, because they enjoy supernatural fantasy. Heck, I loved "Forest of Hands and Teeth", but it's different in all ways from the likes of Twilight. The problem is, I'm completely unable to find anything new in the genre I adore the most--high fantasy. What I consider to be the bread-and-butter of fantasy writing isn't "popular" right now. Scratch that. Nobody's publishing it. Nobody's giving it a chance, because the success of supernatural fantasy makes dollar-signs appear in the eyes of the publishing corporate cheeses. Only authors who established themselves when high fantasy was still popular are able to keep publishing in that genre, it seems.

As a reader, this disappoints me. As a reader, it makes me want to search out old titles. I've turned to podcast fiction. Albeit, I don't read quickly and there are a lot of titles I still want to read, but there's something to be said about new fantasy. I want something I haven't seen or heard about before.

The problem is that everything is too big. (You will never hear her say that) Trying to find a good book in the current market is something akin to panning for gold. Even when all of it has somehow (ostensibly) made it through an unpaid intern, an agent, an editor, a publisher, and a team of other people who all said "yes, let's publish this", the large majority just seems to be the same old dirt, or the nuggets of fools-gold that are hyped-up titles of little to no real literary value. Even if I'm interested in fantasy, the fantasy section often doesn't supply everything I want or need. None of it is filtered, and half the good stuff is missing. It's like the publishing industry has decided that the nuggets of gold and gold dust aren't enough, and decided to move on to marketing something that's shiny and cheap, without realizing that what they're disregarding might indicate the presence of a whole vein of "the good stuff".

In my opinion, independent bookstores are the way to go. The books are hand-ordered, and many to most of them have been read by or recommended to a member of the staff. People are in control of the orders, not a computer. People with discretion and specific tastes. Independent bookstores have flavors all their own, and it's this kind of store that can help save the career of a mid-list author. Independent bookstores are what saved the Harry Potter series from certain oblivion. They add the middle-man where the middle-man is needed. They're able to swing with the tastes of the customers.

Many people have heard or made this argument, and not just about bookstores--the voice against globalization is loud in just about every market. Unfortunately, the same thing that keeps the corporate cheeses from caring about the disintegration of mid-list authors' careers (and tastes outside the current trend) is keeping the majority of consumers from caring as well: the dollar sign. Big chains can offer all sorts of discounts that small stores can't afford. And the major reasons are simple: bulk and distribution. Small presses and small-time farmers can't afford the same kinds of unpaid/mechanical labor and contracts with distributors afforded by larger companies, which means that the larger companies can buy more and distribute it farther and at a lower cost, while the smaller presses and farms are more limited and usually more expensive due to the cost of actual wages. But that's a discussion for another time.

In the end, I would like to support local bookstores. The major issue at the moment is finding one.