Occasionally, you’ll hear a new writer to the field (especially one who’s come in fully indie, in the last 10 years), ask “Why is X genre called a dead genre?” If there’s a group of indie authors, all equally focused on writing stories, they may start getting deep in the weeds on themes versus character arcs vs. popular movies vs. whatever to explain it. Those have nothing to do with it.
If you have some trad authors who write in the “dead” genre, especially westerns, they’ll tell you that they were killed because the editors are coastal urban kids who are completely disconnected from the genre, and killed it out of spite and disconnect with their readers. They’ll also bemoan the way that bookstores have national ordering, which puts massive co-op displays of Hillary’s books deep in coal country and cow country, instead of the books popular in each region.
They’re describing the symptoms, not the cause, but they’re a lot closer than the aforementioned indie authors.
The real causes start in the paper rationing of WWII, which killed the pulps, but let’s pick up the thread of history 39 years ago, at the landmark court decision that nearly destroyed several industries, completely upended the Christmas retail season, created just-in-time inventory systems, and started the slow-motion collapse of publishing as collateral damage.
I’m talking, of course, of Thor Power Tools vs. Commissioner.
If you have a blank look after reading that line, then you’re missing one of the major landmark cases of last century. Prior to 1979, companies could and did hold large inventories, but were allowed to write off the inventory’s aging out as a loss on their taxes, so they paid nothing on the oldest, non-selling inventory. Therefore, there was no tax burden for holding large amount of slow-moving goods in inventory, just the cost or warehousing or shelf space. In hardware store terms, this was why you used to be able to walk into an old store and they’d have everything, even if it was back in a dusty corner.
In publishing terms, prior to 1979, the publishers could hold large inventories of backstock, as could bookstores, and keep things in print for years even if they only sold one or two books a year. This let them grow authors slowly, so if a midlist author took 6 or 7 books to really start to have fanbase, that was fine – they still had all the books in stock and would make a healthy profit (especially because the books had been written off after 5 or 6 years, so they weren’t paying further inventory tax on them) when the midlist author “suddenly” became the big “overnight” bestseller.
After the Thor decision, companies now must pay full inventory tax on all their inventory, at market value, every year. And this is why just-in-time inventory was adopted wide-scale – because the tax hit of having a large buffer of inventory parts became a significant drain to the company. This is also why you see “year end sale!” on so many businesses, especially ones that carry a significant chunk of capital in their inventory like retail. Prior to this, Christmas was certainly a gift-shopping season, but now the draw of Christmas shoppers combines with the need to get rid of as much inventory as possible before year-end, and the inventory tax that must be paid on the remainder.
As for publishing? In the 1980’s, the publishers emptied out those warehouses of backstock, and started taking books out of print rapidly if they were low-selling. The “If you liked this book, order these from us!” pages disappeared out of the back of the mass market paperbacks. They also managed to push the warehousing onto distribution companies, who carried the inventory and took the inventory tax hit for them. The consolidation of distribution, combined with the rise of the chain bookstore and computerized inventory, created further issues we’ll get to in a second.
But first, with the collapse of the long tail, the ability to slow-grow midlist authors into bestsellers collapsed. Because the publishers couldn’t make a large enough profit on slow sales of a large taxable backstock to overcome its carrying cost, midlisters came under pressure at first to produce a bestseller within their first three books, and their old books were taken out of print as soon as they weren’t profitable enough to overcome the carrying cost.
Keep in mind, none of this happened overnight. In fact, a lot of this was happening on companies still using pen and paper for accounting and inventory, as the newfangled mainframe computers worked their way into businesses, followed by the personal computer. (The commodore 64 came out in what, 1982?) So changes took years to happen, and were still slowly rolling in for a couple decades as new technology and new corporate culture adapted.
Back to those distributors. Publishers used to work with many, many distributors, each with their own little patch of turf. Some of you may remember spinner racks of books at truck stops, gas stations, grocery stores, and other random tourist spots – they were stocked by distributors, who were highly motivated to keep their display space full of whatever the public in their area wanted. (Fun fact: the reign of bodice rippers, and Fabio, on romance covers was because those covers sold extremely well at truck stops. Make of that what you will!)
Well, when the publishers went from holding the inventory to shedding it to a few distributors, distribution collapsed, and only a few consolidated companies survived to stock everything. (Economics of scale wins.) The spinner racks disappeared, and left a void that was filled by the new chain bookstores – Borders, Barnes & Noble, and so on.
Borders and Barnes & Noble leveraged three strengths: 1.) Economy of scale. By placing very large orders, they could wrangle better discounts out of the distributors than indie bookshops could. 2.) The new computerized inventory tracking system, which let them see what books were selling and what books weren’t. By ruthlessly exploiting the returns systems publishers had leftover from the great depression, they could send back slow-selling books and not only avoid the inventory tax, but also free up bookstore space for fast-moving books. 3.) Branding power. By establishing a ubiquitous presence in the then-extremely-popular malls across America, with a very similar inventory, people knew they could get what they wanted anywhere they went. With that, and the ubiquitous layout plans, they could rent space to the publishers, and actually charge for placement at the front of the store. endcaps, face-out treatment, etc.
Yes, there were regional differences in many stores, especially early on. However, as they took over such a large percentage of the book trade, the publishers realized that 1.) they could essentially ignore dealing with the indies and just concentrate on selling their catalog to a small handful of buyers, and 2.) through co-op agreements (paid placement) and selling agreements, they could now, to some extent, choose the winners and losers, and bestsellers.
Yes, here you see the real rise of “push” marketing, and the disconnect from the reading audience.
The bookstores, meanwhile, having successfully captured the market, were more than happy to have the publishers paying for placement (co-op), and set to increasing the efficiency of turnover on their shelves… And this was the rise of “ordering to the net.”
Read Holly Lilse’s writeup here: https://hollylisle.com/selling-to-the-net-or/
Man, I remember when Holly Lilse first wrote this post. It was a full two weeks of sturm und drang on the internet, and a whole lot of pushback from authors and publishers saying she was out of her ever-loving mind, she hated booksellers, yadda yadda. Time has proven Holly so right that nobody even questions it anymore… except for indies who never were exposed to ordering to the net, and therefore don’t understand just why trad pub turned into such a vicious cycle.
By the way, she’s a good author, too. If you like fantasy, check out her books!
So yeah, centralized planning and eventually centralized control created an ever-tightening spiral to kill off authors. Times got harder. But, you say, what does this have to do with dead genres? Everything. This is the background that you need to understand the motivations that follow.
Once upon a time, westerns were really popular. They were in the movie theaters, on the television screen, and in all the spinner racks. In fact, the original Star Trek series that brought science fiction to so many proto-geeks was first marketed as “Wagon Train to the stars.”
The print run numbers were down in the 1970’s, and the were one of the first genres declared “dead” by publishers. While they were still quite popular in some regions of the United States, the collapse of the independent distributors and rise of national ordering devastated any chances of comeback. The chains wanted books they could buy in nationwide numbers, and stock everywhere, not regional favourites like westerns. So the market shrank, the buyers were harder to reach, the carrying cost of inventory of the inventory higher, and it entered a vicious spiral.
In Manhattan, the publishers were becoming increasingly disconnected from anything outside New York City, as the rising push model meant that they could now decide what the public saw, and how much of it – picking winners via buying the tables covered with a giant stack of the single book at the front of the store, endcap displays, or face-out on shelves, and everything else was a loser. Without the feedback from the actual buying and reading public that used to come in via sales and distributor orders, their primary feedback on what was “good” came from their peers, and only distantly, six months later, from the accounting feedback on whether their sales projections had been met.
Now, there have always been breakout books. Sometimes they’re big enough to lift an entire genre out of obscurity and into the limelight. Sometimes they’re just really great sellers in their genre. Editors, being creatures of habit, are usually focused on safe bets – looking for something that could be big in a genre that’s currently hot. If a potentially hot book in a hot market fails to take off, that’s blamed on the author, not the editor. If a potentially great book is in a small genre or relatively hard to market, then its failure may be blamed on the editor instead.
Westerns, being alien to the Manhattan crowd, and a declining market, were too risky to take bets on – better to declare it “dead” and move on to putting acquisition money into newer, hotter markets.
What were those markets? In the 70’s, it was horror. The Exorcist went big as a movie in 1973, and a unknown writer named Stephen King’s novel Carrie was accepted by Doubleday. It came out in 1974, and while the hardcover run was small, the paperback run was over a million copies.
After that, everybody wanted the next huge hit, and it looked like it’d be horror.
Now, Kris Rusch once spoke about the waves of publishing on a fad, and it roughly went like this:
- Breakout book breaks out big
- Publishers look around their slush piles, and find possibly books in similar vein that writers wrote on spec, which are pretty darned good, and publish them.
- Meanwhile, writers notice Hot New Fad is lucrative, and write derivative stuff to jump on the bandwagon.
- Publishers run out of slush pile good books, and publish derivative stuff, because the market is buying everything as fast as it hits the shelf.
- Public realized that most of the stuff is dreck, tires of fad, moves on. Publishers, operating on a year lag, put out a lot of derivative dreck and it all fails.
- Publishers declare that the genre has dies, and stop buying in it.
This is what she calls “writing to market”, and most of y’all can probably remember the Fifty Shades of Everything, and all the Twilight clones before that. But it’s been going on for decades.
Side note: When indies started talking about “Writing to Market” and meant “Check the sub-sub genres you like and see if the stories there are selling better on average than other sub-genres; that may indicate a market that’s underserved and needs more content. If it’s among stories you love to write, work on one there next”, or “Identify what’s currently hot in your genre. Look at what you’re writing, and how your stuff is similar. Emphasize the similarity, especially in your marketing”, this is part of why they got an overwhelmingly negative response from the older trad pub authors. Because indies were talking about the marketing end, not necessarily writing to someone else’s demand – but the same phrase was commonly used for only the writing end in trad pub, and was usually a spectacular failure by the time it got to market. Combined with ordering to the net, it was a recipe for career suicide.
Now, unlike Westerns, Horror has had a couple breakout novels since it was declared a dead genre. In 1976, Anne Rice wrote a book called Interview with the Vampire. It went big at the time, and then as horror was declared a dead genre, the series continued to do well (1988’s Queen of the Damned hit the NYT Bestseller list) gave rise to the goth phrase “Vampires are the Undead genre – they keep being declared dead, and rising again!) In 1994 Interview came out as a film with Tom Cruise, and did rather well for itself, feeding yet another round of vampire-everything.
Note this is less than a year after Laurell K Hamilton’s first Anita Blake book came out – I think the second one may have been still fairly fresh on the bookshelves when the movie hit, and people went looking for more sexy urban vampires. And thus, they declared “horror” was still dead, but Urban Fantasy lives on. And Horror is dead, but the Zombie craze, and the Post-Apocolyptic everything (including with zombies!) have their heyday separately, after their attendant breakout books or movies.
Anyway, when a genre is declared dead, this does not mean that the editors stop buying everything. It means they stop buying anything but a tiny trickle of fresh blood. Proven bestsellers are still bought, because they’re sure things. So yes, Stephen King can put out all the horror he wants, and John Grisham can put out legal thrillers, and so on, but that doesn’t mean Joe NewAuthor is going to get a chance, much less any push.
And so it goes… until either a movie comes out that spikes the genre’s sales, or someone takes a chance and publishes a breakout blockbuster, reviving a specific area of the genre, or the same genre under a new name. (Such as when amateur mysteries became cozy mysteries became craft mysteries.)
And this it went, burning out each genre in turn, until indie came along. Indie doesn’t care what the publishers want; it puts out what it wants, whether the genre is “dead” or not. Marketing is much harder in a dead genre not only because the general pool of readers is much smaller, but also because you’re competing against the classics and the extremely long running series, instead of against what other things have just come out.
Hard is not the same as impossible. If you’re willing to tilt at windmills, to put in research on reaching people outside of traditional reader channels, or willing to accept the smaller returns of a smaller market, there’s nothing stopping you from putting out a steampunk, or western, or classic slasher, or sword & planet, or…
And when the readers find you, they love you. Because they really do want something that’s new and different, while still being in the same familiar genre vein.
And with Print On Demand and ebooks, and digital distribution of audiobooks, everything is held in the cloud and isn’t physical inventory until a customer wants it. So it took 30 years, but indie has found a way around Thor Power Tools vs. Commissioner.
Expect the marketplace to continue to change.