Prism Book Alliance would like to welcome back special guest columnist Alexis J Hall for Tea Time with Alexis J Hall & Friends.
Reading, Writing, Publishing and Reading
there’s a hole in my bucket
Bit of a change of pace for teatime this week, in the sense that it’s not really a teatime, so much as me sipping a cup of tea and pontificating. Regular conversation will be resumed next week.
But since this post was inspired by a discussion that took place a couple of teatimes back this seemed to the most obvious place to continue it. The original post was about the popularity of the alpha hero, but in the discussion we drifted into talking about representation in the genre, both in the serious social justice sense and also in the sense of particular types of story that just don’t seem to get written (like queer steampunk and non-alpha heroes).
Something that struck me about the conversation was that the consensus seemed to be that it all starts with authors. Readers can’t read books about people of colour or asexual people or heroes who aren’t alpha dickheads if those books aren’t written in the first place. Obviously, as an author of sorts myself, I had a slightly different take. I felt very much that it wasn’t reasonable to suggest that authors have a responsibility to make a real investment of time and energy producing stories for which there simply isn’t an audience. It’s all very well to say we need more lesbian SF, but if I’m going to spend the best part of a year writing a lesbian science fiction novel, I want a pretty strong guarantee that someone is going to pay me for it at the end. And, more practically, there’s no point in my writing anything if I can’t get it published. That leaves you with the proverbial tree in a forest. If a lesbian science novel is written and no-one is there to read it, does it meaningfully increase the availability of lesbian science fiction?
Lately, I’ve been involved in quite a few conversations with publishers, editors and other authors about the sort of books that the market currently wants and I am therefore likely to be able to get published: basically it’s contemporaries and not much else. The few genre opportunities outside contemps that are available tend to specify cis-gendered male characters only. These conversations have all been perfectly amicable, but I’ve also been quite bothered by them (particularly the fact that some gender-identities or sexualities are excluded from some genres). However, on reflection, I realised that my reaction to publishers was very similar to the reaction that people over at Prism were having to authors.
I had fallen into the trap of believing that publishers have some kind of moral duty to publish representational books, or books in niche genres, even if those books did not sell particularly well, despite having argued only days previously that there was no point in an author doing the same.
The core issue here, I think, is that it is extremely easy to underestimate what things cost other people. This is true of basically everything. The world is huge and complex and frequently inconvenient but we somehow convince ourselves that when our pizza arrives ten minutes late it is because the delivery guy is just plain lazy. We believe everybody richer than ourselves spends all day sitting on yacht drinking champagne which they are able to do because they have such a large amount of money. And that everybody poorer than ourselves spends every day sitting on a sofa drinking lager, which explains why they have such a small amount money. We convince ourselves that teachers, doctors and politicians are all feckless wastrels who don’t do nearly as much work as they claim to.
As a reader, when someone tells you that they aren’t writing their steampunk epic about a genderqueer biromantic asexual because they don’t think there’ll be a market for it, you feel like they’re just making excuses. “If they really cared about this issue,” you say, “they’d do it anyway, and find a way to get it out there.” You might also suggest that they “be the change they want to see in the world”.
As a writer, you have a different perspective. You recognise that there’s no point writing your steampunk epic about the genderqueer biromantic asexual if you’re not going to be able to get it published. But then you get very angry at publishers when they tell you that there isn’t really a market for steampunk epics about genderqueer biromantic asexuals, and that they will, therefore, not publish it. The fact that your publisher would have to spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of man hours turning your manuscript into something fit for human consumption completely passes you by.
Because just as your readers don’t really think that writing a book costs you anything, you don’t really think that preparing a book for publication costs your publisher anything. I mean, rationally you know it does, but other people’s time, effort and money simply doesn’t affect you to the same extent as your own. Put bluntly, other people’s work just isn’t real.
This leads to a farcical situation where everybody is blaming everyone else. Readers are saying they want to buy books that contain under-represented elements, but authors won’t write them. Authors are saying they want to write books that contain under-represented elements, but publishers won’t publish them. Publishers are saying that they want to publish books that contain under-represented elements, but readers won’t buy them. And, of course, the classic comeback here is that publishers are wrong, that they are basing their decisions on their ignorant preconceptions about The Sorts Of Books That People Like.
It would be lovely if this were true. Although it would also imply that publishers are being run abysmally poorly by people who care more about their own prejudices than they do about actually making money. And, obviously, publishers don’t always get it right, and sometimes something comes out of nowhere and changes everything, like Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Grey.
But, generally speaking and sad as it is to admit, when publishers say something won’t sell, it’s usually because it doesn’t sell. This does, however, leave us with a very peculiar picture because there seems to be a lot less demand for books that contain under-represented elements than you might imagine on the basis of what people ask for. There’s a lot of noise on the internet about – to pick an example that’s relevant to my own work – steampunk, and queer steampunk. Indeed, one of the examples that was brought up in the conversation over at Prism was someone looking for genderqueer steampunk, and lamenting that no such thing existed. Which could legitimately have surprised me since I’ve just published a book in a steampunk setting with a genderqueer romantic lead.
The problem is that the amount of talk that is generated (particularly that is generated on the internet) about an idea in no way correlates with the amount of effort or, more importantly, money that people are willing to put into making that idea reality. It costs nothing to say “I would totally read a book about blah” but it requires a non-trivial investment of time, mental energy and cash to track down a book about blah, buy it and read it.
I should stress here that I’m not having a go at readers. Yet again, it falls into this problem of failing to value other people’s effort. It’s easy to assume that people who say they want to read a particular type of book while failing to realise that such books do actually exist and they could, indeed, buy them are being lazy, hypocritical or in some other way “part of the problem”. But the fact is that most people care about lots of different things and can only act positively about some of those things. And it’s particularly difficult with entertainment media because the whole point of an entertainment medium is that you engage with it for fun. Back when I was at university, I spent about a year deliberately seeking out science fiction and fantasy by female authors. This meant I read a lot of books I wouldn’t have read otherwise, which was nice in that it broadened my reading horizons, but did involve reading quite a lot of books I didn’t particularly get on with, A set of books chosen on the basis of their authors is necessarily less likely to include books I like than a set of books chosen because I think I’m going to like them.
To put it another way, when someone says “I’d like to read a book about blah” what they mean is “I’d like to read a book about blah”. What they don’t mean is “I’d like to do a non-trivial amount of homework in order to find a book that’s more or less about blah, and then read it”.
To put it yet another way: everything is kind of fucked.
Readers want to read a wider variety of books, but only will buy them if they are readily and easily accessible. They will only be readily and easily accessible if authors write them. Authors will only write them if publishers will publish them. And publishers will only publish them if readers will buy them. The hilarious, pointless tragedy of this is that a fairer, more diverse and more just marketplace would almost certainly be completely sustainable and completely profitable for everybody. But it is in no-one’s interests to create it. It isn’t in the interests of readers to seek out a more diverse range of books because they’re harder to find and, being smaller in number, less likely to be something the reader actually wants. It isn’t in the interests of publishers to publish books that it isn’t in the interests of readers to read. And it isn’t in the interests of authors to write books that it isn’t in the interests of publishers to publish.
And, ultimately, this is a mess not a problem. The way things are isn’t the only way they can be. It’s just there isn’t a clear way to transition from the way things are to the way things could or should be. Ideally, there needs to be a 50 Shades of Grey for whatever under-represented element of fiction people want to see more represented. Markets get shaken up by unexpected breakouts that change the way everybody thinks about the material they’re engaging with. 50 made people who would never have considered reading erotic fiction read erotic fiction. It made publishers realise there was a serious market for the genre. And it really did change the publishing landscape. But things like that don’t happen very often and you can’t really make them happen.
Of course, there is another way to look at all of this, which is that fundamentally every writer, every publisher and every reader strikes their own balance between what is safe or easy, and what they actually want to be doing. Obviously I’m writing from a position of relative privilege here because I don’t rely on my books to pay my bills. But, speaking very personally, I am uncomfortable operating in an environment where some stories are so devalued that they simply cannot be told.
About Alexis J Hall
Alexis Hall was born in the early 1980s and still thinks the 21st century is the future. To this day, he feels cheated that he lived through a fin de siècle but inexplicably failed to drink a single glass of absinthe, dance with a single courtesan, or stay in a single garrett.
He did the Oxbridge thing sometime in the 2000s and failed to learn anything of substance. He has had many jobs, including ice cream maker, fortune teller, lab technician, and professional gambler. He was fired from most of them.
He can neither cook nor sing, but he can handle a 17th century smallsword, punts from the proper end, and knows how to hotwire a car.
He lives in southeast England, with no cats and no children, and fully intends to keep it that way.
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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