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Genre Publishing as a Light in the Dark

If 2010 was a year to bemoan the status of print publishing, 2011 is shaping up to be a disaster. In the early days of January, book superstore Borders has made moves that may mean a bankruptcy is in the cards. Agents, publishers, and authors alike are reporting lower advances, fewer sales, and overall, a poorer market for anything but celebrity books, many from decidedly unliterary backgrounds such as the new book from Jersey Shore airhead Snookie.

But if the future of the publishing industry is so dour, somebody forgot to tell genre publishers, as their spirits don’t appear to be dampened much by the perceived downturn.

In fact, many smaller presses have reported their best years in 2010. Jennifer Barnes from Raw Dog Screaming Press attributes their successful 2010 to aiming more for direct to consumer and online sales in order to offload the burden of returns from bookstores. Dennis Loy Johnson, publisher for Melville House, speaks to success in 2010 also, saying “We met the realities of the market by continuing to do what we’ve always done: publish really good books. I don’t see the fiction market as flagging. What’s flagging is the big-house commitment to interesting fiction that won’t necessarily sell a billion copies. What’s flagging is the small press conception of interesting fiction as something other than a desperate act of preservation or snobbery. There’s still a large contingent of readers out there who go to fiction for other reasons, and we’re among them.”

So, you don’t have to go too far to find optimism amongst genre publishers but how are they exceptions to upheaval in other areas of the industry? Eric Obenauf from Two Dollar Radio explains it thusly, “I don’t think there’s any competition between us and a press that has more general offerings.” He expands by saying,”I believe it’s much easier for us to exist as a brand. We’re passionate about every project we take on and ideally that comes across. Hopefully our logo carries some weight with readers. I could pick up a book published by Random House and have no clue what I’m getting myself into.”

And in case you thought that this was only a small press phenomena, Lou Anders from Pyr weighs in by saying,”Essentially, Pyr has been on an upward trajectory for several years now, despite the doom and gloom reported about the demise of traditional publishing. But broadly speaking, science fiction and fantasy, along with the young adult genre (which is itself full of speculative fiction) emerged as one of the strongest categories in the last few years.”

As e-publishing becomes a concern in the wider publishing world, genre publishers stand to gain the most by the paradigm shift. Laura Marshall from ChiZine Publications cites a leveling of the competitive advantage with the big six publishers as a major boon for independent publishers that, along with offering higher royalty rates and greater price and content flexibility, is helping to raise their reputation and attract established authors. ” eBooks can be priced substantially lower by independent publishers without the resultant diminishing of paperback sales,” says Marshall.

Melville House’s Johnson is even more buoyed by e-publishing. “…(W)hat ebooks should help rebound, ultimately, is the general sense of creativity in the book business. We’ve been amazingly energized by them at Melville House — not just by the shock of the new, but by the subversiveness of the new. New ways to make art, new ways to get around conglomerate media to talk about art, and new ways to sell art, not to mention a new audience for that art, are the natural antidotes to a culture and media that has ignored that art while concurrently ossifying.”

2011 is going to be another tumultuous year in terms of finding out where literature stands in the pantheon of consumer entertainment. Again, genre publishers are looking forward to the new trends that favor their rise to prominence in this new publishing landscape. Lou Anders is “excited by is a sudden interest in the young adult category in actual science fiction adventure fiction (as opposed to fantasy or paranormal romance). For a while, SF was a hard sell in YA, but the success of The Hunger Games, coupled with all the box office successes of recent mainstream SciFi cinema, has created an SF-friendly climate in young adult.” Others are preparing out of print books for a return in the ebook market.

In times of uncertainty, it’s easy to feel like the future is imposing its will on the present. The mood of traditional publishing has undergone many shifts over the last decade but the industry has endured. From the point of view of speculative fiction publishers, the creative output of the last several years has seen astounding returns. With that head of steam it’s easy to see why Two Dollar Radio’s Eric Obenauf says that he “know(s) the future will not only be okay, but awesome.”

7 Comments on Genre Publishing as a Light in the Dark

  1. Welcome aboard, Tom!  You’re starting out on a very optimistic note, I see.  I think this year is going to be another volatile one for publishing, and I will be curious to see if genre publishers are nimble and committed enough to get their artists’work in the public eye and show the big publishers that all is not lost.  I am more pessimistic about the situation, but I hope that I am proven wrong.

  2. @John, I was actually prepared for this to be a doom and gloom peice. But then all of the publishers I spoke to were so relentlessly optimistic, I had a change of heart. Most of these companies say they had banner years in 2010. But then again most of them are not and never were dependant on moving several hundred thousand copies of a book just to break even. 

  3. Welcome, Tom!


    Do you think that ebooks are more or less embraced by the genre community than the world of literature at large?

  4. @Paul

    I think there are more generational lines than genre lines for ebooks. Everyone interacts with the material in different ways. For some people, a book isn’t a book if there is not tactile object associated with it. For others, they just want the stories and ereading is acceptable. Generations that were born with computers in their lives tend to be more of the latter sort. 

    That said, small presses of all kinds are excited at the direct sales oppurtunities that ebooks offer. Book store returns tend to be the riskiest part of the publishing process. The more they can sell without having to rely on chain stores, the better.

  5. @Tom


    I think that the agility of small publishers, who may have more direct links to readers and more niche appeal gives them an advantage in this somewhat chaotic new environment.  I’ve heard more about companies struggling than succeeding, so it was nice to hear that some of them are doing well!  Someone should get these folks together for a roundtable or podcast and talk about ways to take the initiative as the publishing dynamics change.

  6. Small presses are often less timid than their larger counterparts.  This is counterbalanced by their rates.  The problem is that few of today’s writers can afford to be full-time writers.

  7. “I don’t see the fiction market as flagging. What’s flagging is the big-house commitment to interesting fiction that won’t necessarily sell a billion copies.”

    Right now the publishers (which are mostly the goliaths at this point) all complain about SF because it doesn’t sell enough.  This gets press because these publishers are the go to publishers right now…or everyone assumes they should be.  While the boutique or genre publishers are fine with SF, as they aren’t trying to hit homeruns every time at bat.  Nor do they have shareholders pushing for this, as most are too small to be receive public pressure.

    In a strictly businesses sense this same cycle appears in almost every type of business.  At some point the big firms get big enough they start gobbling up all the small firms.  These big firms then only concern themselves with the big projects (for instance the CEO of GE has stated they almost have to do business with governments to find clients that will move their profit needle because GE itself is so big).  Of couse, then new small firms step in and happily take all the stuff left over, but they don’t get much coverage in the headlines initially.  But, in 3-8 years some of these new firms end up being big enough and have enough of an edge to win a few of the big projects.  “All of sudden” (hardly) a few of the big guys are in trouble when the “new” players step up.

    “But then all of the publishers I spoke to were so relentlessly optimistic, I had a change of heart. Most of these companies say they had banner years in 2010.”

    I bet no one actually spoke with the small publishers before.  They just assumed everything was bad based on the what the big publishers said.

    Oh, and congrats Tom.

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