Wednesday, 4 April 2012

How narrow is the door?

Do you remember those maths lessons where six men dig a trench forty feet long, how long will it take a train to fill a bath? Or something like that.

The other day, I started a calculation. I had to give up because search as I might, I cannot find anything like an accurate figure for one of the elements. Perhaps, in the end it doesn’t matter.

Anyway, think of all the people in the UK who read science fiction and fantasy. There must be quite a few. Hundreds. Thousands. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands. Maybe millions.

According to the latest yearbook, there are 22 publishers of science fiction and fantasy, several of those are for women only, and only a couple of the others will accept submissions that have not come via an agent.

So, how many agents are there that... etc etc?

This is more difficult. Most agents won’t touch SF&F with a tractor beam (see what I did there?). There are a handful who specialise. The rest are ambivalent. They don’t say they don’t, but most will sigh and dump anything with a whiff of swords or spaceships that is not some hack piece produced by an already established ‘literary’ writer. Based on my own experience, there are about a dozen agents in the UK who will consider looking at SF&F. And some of those aren’t taking on new clients.

Now. Think about that. Ten people who are deciding what gets into print. And what does their decision making process consist of? Personal taste of course. Quality of material submitted? Well... possibly (although considering some of the stuff that does get into print, one has to wonder). And looking at sales figures. They want to make money; of course they do. Which means they put forward and try to sell things similar to those that have already sold well. Ten people. Giving you more of the same to choose from.

Result? SF&F lists are now like our high streets. Everywhere you look there is more of the same. True innovation has disappeared to the small and struggling independent presses (which very often are overwhelmed and have long since closed their doors to new submissions). What passes for cutting edge these days is as innovative as a disposable razor – all hype, packaging, built in safety, and not worth keeping.

I chose a specific genre to make this point as it is an extreme. Ten people in the UK are deciding what SF&F gets to be considered for print. Other genres (and, yes, ‘literary’ is a genre) have this problem to one degree or another; a small group of people deciding what you get to choose from. And there are other problems we haven’t even considered. For example, who is going through the slush pile and drawing manuscripts to the attention of senior staff? If it is true that this is more and more in the hands of interns, then writers are in deep shit and sinking fast.

Answer? I don’t know. I told you in the last post that I’m an idiot. What would be nice, though, for whatever you write, is a wider door with more gatekeepers whose experience of the literary world goes a bit beyond what they were force fed to pass their A level/BA.

Sorry for the inconvenience...

Sometimes I am not very bright (sometimes? I hear you ask); and today I have realised just how stupid I can be.

I read the book and literary pages of a number of magazines and newspapers. When I say ‘read’, what I mean is that these days is that I flick through in hope of finding something substantial to ponder. Now and then, I get lucky, but most of the time I come across insubstantial dross, fillers that are about the level of ‘what’s your favourite colour’? Whilst it might be mildly diverting to know what people think about the latest hissy fit thrown by a well-established and comfortably off author you have to wonder, given the parlous state of publishing why there is a lack of in-depth investigation into what is going on.

This morning, I was equally mystified by the vast wash of trivia. It’s like all that plastic that gets washed up on beaches. Unsightly, useless, hiding the real beauty of the place, and you know damn well that before it got there it has strangled god knows how many birds and poisoned god knows how many fish. I found myself itching to organise the equivalent of a beach clean-up.

And then it struck me. All this garbage is produced by journalists on comfortable salaries (and don’t start bleating, journos, you get a damn site more in a month than most authors see from their writing in any given year). And who are they writing for? Mostly for people who don’t have the first idea about what writing involves and the conditions under which it is produced.

Indeed, the kind of stuff you see littering papers and magazines these days is, on the whole, mirroring the general malaise in publishing. The only time authors get consideration (yes, I know it’s a generalisation, but I can’t keep qualifying) is when they are fodder for gossip. If they’ve said or written something that is considered controversial (and it rarely is actually controversial, just a bit of tired mouthing off that displays their ignorance), if they’ve landed an absurd book deal, if they are up for yet another prize.

Anyone would think there was little else to report, discuss, or investigate. True we get spates of e-book versus p-book, but nothing new is said. And even in that discussion, the focus is invariably on the reader and what they think/are prepared to pay/etc.

Which leads me to think that, all-in-all, writers are a bit of an inconvenience. It is increasingly the case that people expect writers to work for free. Digital thieves (I won’t call you a ‘pirate’ because no, you’re not an online Johnny Depp; you’re a snivelling little wanker sitting alone in your bedroom ripping off people who work bloody hard). Organisers of events who expect writers to give up a day or more when they could be working to give talks and then expect them to pay for their own travel and keep (how much do you earn as an organiser?). Multi-national book retailers – well, they are doing their best to kill off publishing altogether. Agents can be incredibly sniffy about the ones that aren’t making them money (for ‘sniffy’, read ‘downright bloody rude’). Publishers... well, the way some of them carry on you get the impression they would much rather do without authors altogether; that way they can shed even more spine and give those big retailers an even bigger discount.

See the huge weight of the industry there? All of them supported by the work of writers. And the big players in that industry seem to forget that. There are exceptions, often small, independent publishers who are struggling on a daily basis to keep going because they are forever undercut by the big players whose main concern is profit and dividends for their shareholders (and don’t get me started on those bloodsucking scum).

Now, I’m not trying to make out that all authors are ground under the heel of fascist corporatism. Many make a living of sorts. Some do very well. But the vast majority do not. The vast majority are made to feel like they are in the way. And that is the surest way to bring about the collapse of the industry as it exists today. Because now, as never before, authors can take the process into their own hands.

True, the vast majority of self-published work is garbage. Badly written, ignorant of the basics of grammar, poorly formatted, but what the heck. That never stopped mainstream publisher producing garbage of the same standard. And in amongst all that manure there are good books that will, I hope find an audience and free their authors of the tyranny that currently keeps their words from a readership that is hungry for new work.