Old Dogs and New Paradigms, Part 1

“Aha! I understand everything now!” —SpongeBob SquarePants 

For the past year, I have been actively trying to land an agent to represent one or all three of the novel-length manuscripts I’ve completed in the past few years. I am not having much luck. Part of the problem may be me. Perhaps I’ve lost my edge. In the mid-1980s, I dropped out of writing fiction; despite a few forays into popular fiction since then, I’ve largely stayed out of it. So perhaps I am not up to speed.

But that’s not the whole story. Publishing has changed dramatically during the past twenty years, while I was effectively sitting on the sidelines or being Rip Van Winkle. The stories I’ve written in the past couple of years are what you’d expect to see from me: a thriller about a killer-novelist; a supernatural story about a sorcerer and his enemies. The best of them is atypical in that it is literary—Seasons of the Moon, a story about a boy coming of age in a rural community that worships women and lives in harmony with nature. I published it myself in 2005 through iUniverse and occasionally still see royalty checks for it. It is not a very commercial book, but it is deeply appreciated by those who’ve read it. 

I warrant that if I had tried to attract an agent with one of my manuscripts, or an editor, four or five years ago, I would have managed to get into print again for the first time since 1991. I say this because, before the economy crashed, there was a boom in publishing throughout most of the aughts and, despite a general trend among publishers to shrink the midlist, there were, as author Victoria Strauss said in a blog in December 2008, far too many titles being released, with publishers tossing out books “like spaghetti, hoping that at least some will stick to the wall” (http://accrispin.blogspot.com/2008/12/victoria-strauss-publishings-week-of_07.html). So the manuscripts I’ve been pitching lately would likely have had an easier time finding someone to champion them back when the spaghetti-throwing was going on. Which is all it comes down to, an agent or an editor becoming your new best friend because she or he is excited about the chance to make money with your manuscript as well as push forward her or his career as well as yours. 

As to the midlist. When my first novel was published in 1977, I became, although I was not then familiar with the term, a midlist writer. This is the midlist, as described on the website for Mid-List Press (http://www.midlist.org/about.cfm): “quality titles of general interest that are rarely bestsellers, but, in the words of noted media critic Ben H. Bagdikian, ‘nonetheless account for the most lasting works in both fiction and nonfiction. . . .’ In the past, publishers built their reputations on midlist books. In recent years, however, such factors as the enormous prices paid for high-profile ‘frontlist’ books and the growing domination of mass merchandisers have eaten away at the traditional support for the midlist. The most disturbing aspect of this decline has been a corresponding decline in writers’ access to publication and, hence, to their audiences.” 

I like the fact that the authors of this web page include the word “quality” in their estimation of the midlist. By and large, I think it is true that these novels reflect a certain level of quality, or at least used to. Myself, I have always thought of the midlist as being the paperbacks that filled the racks at the old Gray’s Drugstore at the Liberty Plaza that I went to as a kid, the same kinds of books that were sold at train and bus stations. The midlist thus includes genre titles (Westerns, detective stories, thrillers, and science fiction, as well as, since the 1980s, fantasy and horror titles), along with the well-crafted books of litterateurs and excellent wordsmiths, such as, for example, the admirable Robert Stone. Perhaps quality is in the eye of the beholder, and perhaps it is a stretch to include Stone in the same broad midlist as science fiction and detective story writers, but who can say? Some of the pulp writers of the 1920s and 1930s are now in the Library of America. For God’s sake, H. P. Lovecraft is in the Library of America. The work of these writers, removed from the context of those times, now reveals qualities not so apparent back then. This aspect of gold hidden in the rough is particularly true of genre fiction, which, like jazz and the blues, draws readers to it rather than proactively going after an audience—a siren’s song, rather than a carnival barker’s pitch. Popular writing was technically or grammatically better in the 1920s and 1930s; as a society, we were more literate then than we are now. But the powerfully human tendency to ask, What next? and to keep us turning the pages predominates in this proletarian literature. Rather than being fine cuisine, it is steaks on the grill. Popular storytellers drive us along, or drive along and take us with them. This is what strong storytelling has done from the dawn of human self-exploration—gestes, poems, myths, tales of the ancestors and of culture heroes. (I heard Clive Barker on a radio interview ’long about 1989 or thereabouts say something to warm the hearts of all of us who appreciate the wonderful peculiarities and advantages of genre fiction: History, he said, is very kind to genre fiction. And it is. This is where the “lasting works” part of the Mid-List Press quotation comes in.)

So here I am, in my middle twenties, in the middle 1970s, writing for the midlist. My good fortune in becoming published occurred by a mixture of pluck and luck as well as timing. I thought then that the world generously welcomes talent and that there is always an extra chair at the table for someone good of heart, hard of work, and shining with talent. On some other world, perhaps. I was lucky, however, to have met people early on who steered me toward some book contracts that allowed me to write the kind of stuff I loved to write at that time. Perhaps I was really no more than a useful idiot, naïve and eager and easy to take advantage of. Still, I was hired to write sword-and-sorcery novels, a genre I like but, as it turns out, not a long-lived genre in publishing. Sword-and-sorcery had great success in the pulps in the 1930s and 1940s and moderate success during a paperback revival in the 1970s. It made publicly available for the first time some of the talented writers of the 1970s—Charles Saunders, Richard L. Tierney, and Karl Wagner, as well as myself. However, popular publication of this genre was soon superseded, by design as much as by exigency, by juvenile and young adult fantasy fiction and Tolkeinesque adventures. Sword-and-sorcery stories, which are basically Westerns, continued to exist in low-budget movies and, particularly, video games. 

This is probably as it should be because publishing, beginning in the 1980s, became dominated by many bright and energetic women who championed peppy, adolescent fantasy novels geared to young readers and the young at heart. The exuberant, overwhelming presence of this juvenilia coincided with the rise of publishing conglomerates and rock-star authors. As agent Andy Ross said in a blog in August 2009: 

“You read about these high profile deals in the newspaper: Sarah Palin (or Tina Fay [sic]), Dr. Phil, Stephen King. These deals are actually pretty simple affairs and mostly revolve around the concept of a lot of money changing hands. But the vast amount of publishing deals are something entirely different.

“Most of my projects are what is referred to in the trade as ‘midlist.’ The midlist books are the ones that aren’t lead titles. The midlist is most of the books that are getting published. The midlist appears to be what publishers are most shy about acquiring in bad economic times.

“Even though advances for the midlist are pretty modest (often less than $10,000), publishers see these books as a risk. Like every other business in America, publishing is having a hard time. The lead titles seem to be holding pretty well, but the midlist is struggling. There are other factors involved in the decline of the midlist as well. Concentration of retail bookselling in the hands of chain stores and mass merchants, the cult of celebrity, a reading public that has developed internet-inflicted ATD, irrational exuberance over all things media-driven. All of this works against good books with smaller audiences. . . . 

“When you read about the big deals, the word ‘auction’ usually comes up. But with most midlist books, you might find only one publisher who really falls in love with the book. Or no publisher.” (http://andyrossagency.wordpress.com/2009/08/31/deconstructing-publisher-rejection-letters/#comment-273

So what I’m trying to do is to find the one agent or the one editor or publisher who will fall in love with one of my manuscripts. This, I realize, is precisely the situation I was in during the 1970s. I lucked out then in that my timing was right for the sort of fiction I was crafting. Today, finding that one agent or editor or publisher is likely just as difficult as it was then, only I’m no longer writing fiction right for the times. I have no plans to write Jane Austen zombie novels, for example, or adolescent vampire stories. World-weary sorcerers filled with guilt, on the other hand . . . that I can do. 

(The older I get, the more I want to infuse some sense of maturity into my fiction, or depth, or insight, whatever comes from years of living thoughtfully, and more than ever, after all of the time I have spent teaching English and doing editorial work, I want my use of the language to be as good and clean as I can make it. Genre stories for grown-ups, written as well as one can attempt it, are not the first thing that agents are requesting. I am aware of that, yet I continue to pitch my projects.)

I never wrote bestsellers, and likely I never will. My talent is not sufficiently facile. Most of the books I wrote sold a minimum of 50,000 copies, a perfectly respectable number, but to a reading public that is now largely gone. (I am still annoyed that Avon screwed up the promotion and distribution of The Fair Rules of Evil in 1989. This is a book that I think could have become a “profit center” for them, or a “franchise,” or whatever the kids call it these days. Doubleday, in fact, wanted to look at the manuscript, but the clever agent I had at the time claimed that he could do better than to show my story to the publisher that had first put Stephen King between hard covers. I’m still angry. I think that Fair Rules and its sequel, The Eyes of Night, would have been popular back then if they’d gotten decent distribution. But maybe they were both ahead of their time, like the fantasy trilogy I wrote in 1983, The Fall of the First World—completely forgotten now. Pinnacle published it and then went out of business. I am jinxed. Timing is everything, and I had my moment. Timing and the right connections, let’s say. Still, a young director in California wants to film Magicians, the script Joe Bonadonna and I wrote based on The Fair Rules of Evil, so who knows?)

So much for the old dogs part of this essay. As for the new paradigm? This is still an open question. I’ll continue to write, whether for five readers or 50,000 or 500,000, but what’s the best way for me to reach the audience for my stories? The old paradigm—commercial paperback publishing—clearly seems out of reach, and least so far in my attempts, largely because of that shrinking midlist and the emphasis on frontlist authors, celebrities, and juvenilia. Still, there are avenues to be explored. Ted Rypel, interestingly, has found a publisher in Germany that has not only translated and reprinted his Gonji novels but also has requested six new novels from him. Incredible: Ted is getting contracts for original sword-and-sorcery novels, which is how things used to be here in America; now the offer comes from Germany. Still, in America, Ted has just seen the first of the original Gonji titles released as an audiobook; the whole series will follow. Are these examples of a new paradigm? I have a friend in Germany who’s sold some of my short stories there. Perhaps Germany or Europe generally is more accommodating to stories or genres not seen as worth bothering with here in the States?

The publisher that a few years ago brought back Charles Saunders’ Imaro books pulled out after the first two, so now Charles is taking control of the matter and publishing the Imaro saga via Lulu. The third volume, like the first two a recasting of the books originally published by DAW in the 1980s, came out last year, and the fourth—the first new Imaro title in thirty years—has just been released. Charles will be bringing out the fifth and final Imaro title soon. Is self-publishing in this way the new paradigm? It’s not unlike the small press, the fanzines and the semi-pro zines, in which Charles and Ted and Joe Bonadonna and I first saw print. Joe, in fact, is now polishing the manuscripts for his planned collection of stories centering on Dorgo the Dowser. These yarns are a throwback to forties pulp fiction and also were ahead of their time when Joe started writing them in the 1970s—sword-and-sorcery modeled on noir detective fiction. The combination works; the stories are good. In the same way, I’m slowly but surely going through my old fantasy short stories from the 1970s—“Descales’ Skull,” “The Passing of the Sorcerer,” all eighteen of them—to put together in a collection. It’s not even worth trying to interest a commercial publisher in this project, so my only avenue probably is to publish it myself. Should I offer it by subscription, another old model that may be part of the new paradigm? Let me know if you’d buy a copy; if I get enough potential readers, I’ll go ahead and publish it.

What do we do, we writers who used to fill a niche for 50,000 readers but are now no longer regarded as worth the effort to put between paper covers? I ask myself this question: What does any artist do who is basically small potatoes? Small potatoes with oodles of talent and drive, of course, but . . . small potatoes. Well, that artist does local theater, or plays small blues clubs, or shows in small galleries. In other words, such artists pay their own way in hopes of reaching the limited audience that appreciates their work. For me, does this mean Lulu, or iUniverse? Web publishing or e-books? Self-made audio books? 

I am still undecided. Still writing, but still undecided. 

Note: I apologize to those of you who follow this blog regularly for being silent since early January. Tough winter. But I expect I’ll be posting more stuff at a reasonable pace for the foreseeable future. Thanks for your support. And I’ll start answering the comments on my blog postings, too! I will, I will!

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