I was very excited to receive your Email request this morning, asking for my help in your battle against Hachette. Not since Carrie White got invited to the prom has a girl been more pleasantly shocked to be included. And you’re right; those big publisher types are just fuckers. I was a mid-list romance author for Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster all through the 2000s, and let me tell you—
Oh, right, sorry, you want to talk about your thing. No, yeah, of course; it’s totally fine. So anyway, okay, Hachette and its other big nasty “media conglomerate” friends have been being all hateful to you at Amazon about your e-books. I heard about the whole collusion thing – those bastards! You and the Supreme Court are so right; I don’t blame you one bit for being upset. I mean, I know in my heart that if you hadn’t already put every other bookselling outlet that could possibly affect the market at your level out of business, you and those peers you don’t have would never, ever sit down in a New York City restaurant to try to come to some sort of price fixing agreement. I can just see them all in there, smoking their big cigars, drinking their martinis – they probably pinched the pert derriere of the cigarette girl as she passed. Kudos to you and your lawyers for bringing them to justice. So now they’re coming after you one by one, starting with Hachette, and you’ve come to me for my help as a writer to fight back. I’m flattered; I really am.
But let’s talk about the pig’s blood before I put on the tiara. (Sadly, unlike Carrie, I don’t have evil superpowers, but this also ain’t my first prom.) You talk in your email about the “invention” of the paperback “just ahead of World War II” and how some writers like George Orwell didn’t like it and how they were wrong and how the current debate about e-book pricing is just like that. Leaving aside the nagging knowledge I have of yellowback novels being published way back in the 1870s and magazine serials blazing the trail for pulp fiction decades before that, let’s talk about Orwell’s fears about what paperbacks would do to what you call “literary culture.” At that time, there was no such thing as “literary fiction” or “genre fiction;” there was just “fiction,” and Orwell, who wrote dystopian sci fi with straightforward political commentary, was part of it. So were Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. So were the Bronte sisters, who wrote romance, and Sir Walter Scott, who wrote historicals, and Mark Twain, who wrote YA and comic satire, and Mary Shelley, who wrote horror. And all those books from Orwell’s era that we now consider classics too dense, boring, and “literary” for anybody but aging academics and film directors to read, like The Great Gatsby and The Sound and the Fury and Moby Dick and Ulysses, those weren’t considered “literary novels,” they were considered “novels,” and everybody who read novels read them right alongside the lighter stuff.
Paperbacks are awesome; I’ve built my life as a reader and my career as a writer on paperbacks. And they did “rejuvenat[e] the book industry and mak[e] it stronger,” in that a lot more books got published and read because they were so much cheaper, and ultimately publishers and booksellers made a lot more money. (Authors maybe not so much, but maybe so. Bigger business meant bigger demand which meant bigger paychecks for the bigger names, and more people probably got published, too.) But those bigger numbers created the need for some kind of genre categorization, at least in the minds of those publishers and booksellers, which led to the big divide between so-called “literary” fiction and “genre” fiction that plagues every author alive today and threatens to destroy any notion of a “literary culture” in English completely.
So maybe old George was on to something after all.
You (or to be fair, your spambot) also talk about how paperbacks, because of these snooty objections from the literary establishment, were first sold in drugstores and newsstands, casting Amazon as the humble newsstand/drugstore of today’s e-book world. Well . . . maybe. If we’re talking about a drugstore that first puts all the other drugstores out of business. Then sells their paperbacks at somewhat less than cost so they can sell more candy bars and condoms by luring in more customers. Then decides to just give the paperbacks away to special customers who have credit accounts with them to buy their much more expensive prescriptions, explaining to the people who make their living off the paperbacks that they’ll pay them a percentage of the nothing they’re charging, they promise. And when those people who make their living off the paperbacks object, accuses them of wanting readers to die because they’re being denied access to cheap medicine. Then, yeah, the comparison is probably pretty apt.
So in response to your request, I would like to suggest a new marketing model to you and Facebook and Google and all the other companies who hire marketing copy writers (most of whom probably wrote at least the first couple of chapters of a novel at some point) to write this kind of mass communication to me and the rest of us content providers and customers and such; sort of a new mission statement. It’s not a new concept; my grandfather was fond of it, but it has the kind of folksy charm I think you were going for here.
Stop pissing on my shoes and telling me it’s raining.
Love and kisses,
(Credit for the groovy writer girl graphic to the brilliant Isabel Samaras)