When The Walls Fell
I grew up in a dark age, when books were scant and hard to obtain. Also expensive.
Okay, on the serious side, for those of us reading this who don’t know, since we have a lot of new readers recently: I am Portuguese born and bred. My family is still in Portugal. I only learned to speak English at 14, and it was my third language.
However, half of each set of kids in my family tended to emigrate. My parents thought they were safe having only two and that if one left it would be the boy. But when I was 8 I decided when I grew up I was going to live in Denver and be a writer. Best decision I ever made, but that’s not important right now.
What’s important is that the Portuguese book market invented push-marketing before the Americans even dreamed of it. Books to be printed — in general — are chosen by prestige instead of marketability. For instance, from the US they tend to choose award winners (though frankly it also doesn’t help that they don’t/can’t understand our bestseller lists often lie) or books acclaimed in reviews. Then they run a very tiny print run, and when it sells it’s done. Unless you find it used or in a forgotten bookstore, you can’t find it.
For the purposes of this blog post, the important thing is that it limited my reading.It wasn’t THAT horrible. I mean, there was ONE science fiction imprint when I was little and most of it was actually pretty decent. In a most Un-Portuguese move, these people actually published SF novels from the pulp era, as well as Heinlein, Asimov, Anderson, Simak, Bradbury, etc. etc.
It was through them that I ran away with the — Science Fiction — circus and fell in love with that rogue, Space Opera. (Yes, I know, he is disreputable, isn’t he? But that’s part of his charm.)
But the problem was those came out once a month, and when they were gone, they were gone. Which means that if the release was a popular author like Heinlein, Simak, Bradbury and a handful of others, you had to get up and wait in line in the drizzly darkness (everything you read about the continuous drizzle and cold of the North of Portugal in your regency novels? It’s true) of a Porto morning, waiting for the bookstore to open. (Which was the closest I came to organized fandom to my thirties. Only this being Portugal it was, of course, disorganized fandom.)
Now being me — it’s annoying, but I’m stuck with it — and having a wicked reading habit, once-a-month, one book was not enough.
Sure, there was re-reading. I was also the lucky inheritor of generations of readers in my family. Before I found SF/F, I was very fond of Sir Walter Scott, Dumas (even the lesser known works) and similar authors, some I think Portuguese imitators flying under noms de plume.
I liked stories of battles and pirates, and I liked honor and adventure (Yeah, I was destined to fall in love with space opera.)
But truth be told, I read EVERYTHING including dad’s poetry collection, cousin’s romances (if they hadn’t been Portuguese Romances — don’t ask. Okay, so HEA, traditionally? He dies and she mourns him forever. Joining a convent is optional — I probably would have run away with romances too,) brother’s historical novels, philosophy collection and history books, friends’ fathers “great libraries bound in leather” where I was the first to cut the pages open.
I crawled into the potato cellar to find great-grandmother’s collection. I climbed unsteady ladders in the out buildings to find books in forgotten suitcases. I once dated a guy a whole summer (be fair, I was like 12. That meant holding hands) because his parents had subscribed him to the equivalent of “the boy’s own book club.” He hated reading, but I gave him synopsis of the books. When I got older and could read English, I haunted the hotel lobbies where Americans stayed. You see, they often ditched “vacation paperbacks” and the nice people put it ON TOP of the trashcan, instead of inside.
I “borrowed” and read my brother’s and cousin’s school books, often before they read them. (Which is how at eight — brother being 10 and cousin 14 years older than I — I got sent to bed without dinner for saying the word “sperm” in company. I have no idea what mom was thinking. I was talking about the reproductive cycle of starfish, I think. Which is absolutely not salacious. But hey.)
In a pinch I read instructions for instant coffee (we didn’t have boxed cereal. I think they do now), recipes for stuff I was never going to cook, the want adds, instructions for machines I never owned, and the medical matter on every box of medicine that crossed the threshold. My policy was simple: if you bring it into the house, I will read it.
Yeah, I still read as much. And yes, there is a point to this ramble, besides confessing to my addiction.
When I first came to the States and discovered used book stores and — stars in eyes — library sales, and the discount rack at various stores and, when broke, the free shelves outside bookstores (I spent a lot of the nineties reading gothic romances nobody wanted. I didn’t either, but they were free and were printed words) I thought I was in reader-hog-heaven.
And then I figured out in the 90s or so, all the new books were… blah.
Look, part of it was that for reasons known only to their psychiatrists, publishers all tried to publish the same thing, apparently thinking if someone likes chocolate that’s ALL they want to eat forever. Part of it is between their ability to “push” to the dominant mega stores, and their inability — still — to really know what actually sells (most reports are based on bookscan which have admitted they only capture half the sales, and in some cases — such as Baen whose laydown is mostly PX and comic bookstores — less than 1/3.)
Part of it is that they decided they were “sort of gods” and that whatever they put out there we would read, because where were we going to go for our fix?
And then they forgot they’re a BUSINESS, selling books like other people sell, oh, meat, or drink, and instead of publishing things people might want to read, they’d publish stuff that was good for the reader.
This is the equivalent of a meat producer going vegan, because it’s better for you. And then telling you to shut up and eat. Because where are you going to go?
Where I went — dark times my friends — was to re-reading and, for a time to reading exclusively history and non-fiction. (I once spent 8k in the history book club. In one month. No, we weren’t rich. But you know addicts.)
It worked, sort of, until indie came in. And people started finding other stuff to read.
Traditional publishers still don’t get it. They’re divided between “Oh, they’ll get tired of doing their own covers and editing” (No, really, no.) “and come begging” (I’d rather crawl naked through broken glass smeared with lemon juice than publish another novel — even one — with a traditional publisher again; and “everything is fine. People are turning away from ebooks.”
Right now they still have money, because, you know, they only pay us what bookscan reports. BUT –nota bene — that’s not what THEY get paid. Maybe those who are going through other vendors, but I doubt it. I doubt it mostly because if they weren’t being paid for 2/3 of their output, no matter how daft (and I’m starting to realize how daft these people are) they would have stopped sending books to the stores that don’t report. Shouldn’t they? I mean, seriously. (That slush fund must be amazing. If I ever win the lottery, we’re going to fit so many forensic accountants and lawyers on our budget! That is if the houses are still around, which I doubt.)
Which is why I see a lot of panicked nonsense from traditional-wedded prestige (that is the “darlings” who were promoted and paid out of proportion with their actual sales. IOW what Portugal now publishes, and why they’ve almost killed sf/f there.) writers, and identity-obsessed writers, and publishers, and writers associations.
“So and so is racist.” “Don’t read so and so, he used the word “ladies”.” And “This year read only women of color.” And …. the list is endless and vomitous.
Vomitous because none of it has to do with reading and enjoying what you read.
This is why if you poke your head up and say “I don’t read skin colors. I read mystery/space opera/romance/adventure/war stories.” (Or in my case, yes.) they tell you you’re “trying to gatekeep.” Or “trying to keep women, gays and people of color” from writing. This is ridiculous if you’re just writers (how ARE you going to keep people from writing whatever they want? And publishing whatever they want? Are you holding their cat hostage?) and double ridiculous if all the writers involved are in one of those categories, except one, who is married to a woman of color.
All of which boils down to “Never mind, they have their narrative and don’t want to be bothered with facts.” Some of our brethren in Romance are experiencing that fun-happy moment right now.
And some of them are about as amused as we are.
But the good news is that while publishers might continue trying to sell us prestige and write-think, we are free.
Write like the wind, my brothers and sisters, and publish too. Write what gives you joy. Write what your readers show they want.
We don’t need writer associations. We don’t need publishers. We are free.
The walls have fallen. What the Trad Pub gatekeepers are guarding, as they thrash and roll in their final agonies, is not worth the having.
And if they want to save themselves — if it’s not too late — perhaps they should remember they’re in the business of selling, not in the business of educating.
Right now, they’re like the salted cod merchant who delivers every slice with a lecture about how you should eat less wild-caught cod because the poor things are depleted. And this particular cod was named bob and really liked his patch of the Atlantic, before he was cruelly caught, filleted and salted for your greedy consumption.
Shut up, Manuel, and ship the cod.