Business Musings: Hidden Treasures
What a fascinating few weeks I’ve had. At the end of May, I hit most of my major writing deadlines. I’m turning my attention to short stories and to a massive project I’m doing for Baen Books, under the unwieldy title Tough Mothers, Great Dames, and Warrior Princesses: Classic Stories By Women in Science Fiction. (Yes, I’m considering another title, but still haven’t come up with it.)
In connection with that book, I posted here and I’ve started a website called Women in Science Fiction, mostly so I have a place for suggestions from you sf fans, and also so that I have a record of the various stories I like that probably won’t fit into the book.
The suggestions have been marvelous. Thank you, everyone, for the ideas, the thoughts, the authors I might have missed. Please, keep the suggestions coming.
I’m amazed at how many writers I’d heard of, but not read. I’m also amazed at how quickly names have gotten lost. I actually found many of the suggestions shocking—not because I disagree or anything, but because I hadn’t realized these writers had become writers who needed to be rediscovered.
For example, a number of people told me about Ursula K. Le Guin, because they hadn’t heard of her until lately. Or Octavia Butler, whom many don’t know. And then, the Andre Norton discussion I had on this site with Jeffro Johnson on Norton’s obscurity to an entire generation. (Thanks, Jeffro!) Here’s the link. It’s in the comments. He mentioned how his generation never read Andre Norton, and that comment hurt my heart.
Andre Norton is as essential to my youthful reading experience as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan books and Agatha Christie’s mysteries. Maybe more essential. I spent my twelfth and thirteenth summers in a hammock in our yard, reading books with rocket ships on the spines from our local library. The only writer’s name I remember from that period is Andre Norton. I read everything, and when a librarian told me Andre was a woman, I had serious cognitive dissonance. In those days, I read a lot of women’s fiction (mostly Gothic romances) and Andre Norton wasn’t writing what other women were writing. She was writing adventure. Space stuff. Scary stuff. And writing about men.
I mention the Tarzan books and Agatha Christie because Burroughs, Christie, and Norton are the first writers I binged on, and I remember those binges clearly.
You mention Christie these days and everyone has heard of her work, even if they haven’t read it. You mention Burroughs, and everyone has heard of Tarzan, and some even know about John Carter of Mars. You mention Robert Heinlein to science fiction fans, and they know who he is as well.
Heinlein, Burroughs, and Christie have been continually in print for generations. But Andre Norton hasn’t. Some of her work left print during her lifetime. Some of the problems occurred after her death, because of estate issues. (There are always estate issues. I need to continue my estate series, I know. I know. Buried in projects here, but will do so when I can.) Here’s the best link I could find to the estate problem. The links inside the article don’t all work, but the piece does lay out the problem and the eventual solution.
But part of the reason that Andre Norton’s work has faded into obscurity for younger generations is precisely what Jeffro Johnson mentioned. He wrote,
There is a generation gap. In the seventies, fantasy readers would have typically read stuff from a half dozen decades without giving it a thought…Something happened with regard to publishing, libraries, book clubs, and book stores in the eighties to cause a shift….
He guessed about what the shift was, blaming the usual suspects, video games, blockbuster movies, but those—frankly—were 1970s phenomena, and while prevalent in the 1980s, didn’t stop people from reading the old stuff.
He’s right about the shift. It did start in the 1980s, and as I said in my comment back to him, I knew about it.
I just hadn’t thought about it in terms of what we read and what’s available to us before.
So here, in the smallest nutshell I can manage, is what happened. I’m dealing with the US only because that’s what I’m familiar with. But as I’ve been Googling today to double-check my facts, I realize that some of what I mentioned here (particularly the part about libraries), occurred in other Western nations as well.
First, the rise of a certain type of chain bookstore occurred in the 1980s. Bookstore chains have existed almost as long as bookstores. It’s pretty normal for a successful retailer to open another store once the first store does well. Until the 1980s, bookstore chains were regional. You’d hear a New Yorker say that he’d be going to Brentano’s, not that he was going to a bookstore. Or someone from Michigan would go to Borders. These were independent booksellers, who owned more than one store.
Eventually, the stores became successful and the chains expanded. According to Wikipedia, Waldenbooks had a store in every state in 1981, and most of those stores were in the place where Americans did much of their shopping—malls.
The early chain bookstores in malls were small. These stores had a tiny footprint and big rent. They had to “churn” books, meaning that every month—or in some cases—every ten days, the entire content of the store would change. Books were being stripped and tossed out if they didn’t sell in less than two weeks. The bestsellers would remain in the stores. Everything else would change.
At this point, though, independent booksellers still grew and expanded. The chains had no real impact on independents because the chains weren’t in their neighborhood. Very few independent bookstores opened in shopping malls again, because of the high rents. Bookstores tended to locate in older parts of a city where the rents were low.
Readers shopped in bookstores, but readers also bought books in other places—drugstores, grocery stores, truck stops—you name the retailer, and it probably carried a few books. Books really were everywhere.
I miss those days more than I can say. I realized just a few days ago that my reward for grocery shopping (which I hate with a fiery passion) was to buy myself a book—or at least to scan the bookstore racks at the grocery store, looking for a book to buy. I can’t do that any more.
In addition to the prevalence of books to buy, libraries had vast collections. Once I binged on the library’s Andre Norton collection, I read every science fiction book in my local Carnegie library, then moved on to other authors. Their entire oeuvre would be in that library. For example, I read everything Paul Gallico wrote. I just went to a website to see his work, to see if I remembered correctly that he had written The Poseidon Adventure (he had), and I’m pretty sure that was my entry novel. Although it might have been The Snow Goose, which I loved. The Snow Goose was initially published in the 1940s. I read it in the 1970s, in the library edition.
In fact, on that website, I got lost in memories. Not all of Gallico’s books worked for me, but most of them did. And I don’t think I missed a one in my Gallico binge. I can even remember where those books were on the shelf, what that corner of the library smelled like, and how the light filtered in from the pebbled windows on a snowy afternoon.
I worked in that library one summer, shelving books. I went to the morning coffee meetings, where the librarians talked about the limited space they had and how the occasionally had to cull books. Most of the books culled were ones that hadn’t been checked out in years and had to be removed with great sorrow. The library had a rotating rack of paperbacks, and those stayed until they fell apart.
Library book sales used donation books, if the books were sold at all.
Inflation hit in the late 1970s, eroding the amount that a dollar could purchase. Then extreme budget cuts in the early 1980s targeted funding for libraries (among other non-defense programs).
In her dissertation, Keeping the Faith: The Public Library’s Commitment to Adult Education: 1950-2006, (available on ProQuest), Brenda Weeks Coleman looks at the effect of library funding on libraries. On P. 278, she writes,
Although federal funds did not represent a large portion of the total income for libraries, the recommended cuts had an averse effect on the adequacy of library services for two important reasons. First, state matching dollars were often paired with federal dollars; cuts in federal dollars meant a corresponding cut in state dollars for public libraries. Second, state and local funding problems, especially lower property tax revenues, compounded the library funding problem.
Less money for libraries meant a shift in the way that libraries handled their collections. Libraries needed patrons to show up and then support organizations like Friends of the Library, so libraries cut back on book orders and increased periodicals they carried. Interlibrary loan became important. As long as the book was somewhere in the system, then someone could order it and wait and wait and wait.
As you can tell, this had an impact on the little shelf-scourers, like me. I couldn’t randomly discover a writer and then easily read her work. The library, the place I always thought of as a repository of knowledge, became more about the churn as well, mostly in self-defense. The books didn’t stay on the shelves for five to ten years. By the end of the 1980s, if a book hadn’t been checked out in two years, it went to the library book sales department or got pulped. (Writing that hurts. It really does.)
So by the end of the 1980s, as Jeffro Johnson noted, books went out of print. There was also a tax ruling that got misconstrued as the main cause of the loss of the backlist in the 1990s, but that ruling only had an impact for a few years. The ruling changed the way that warehoused items were counted on taxes. It’s too complicated to go into here, but suffice to say it wasn’t cost effective for publishers to sit on books in warehouses during that period, so stocking books at a publisher’s expense (to replenish when the supply in the market diminished) ceased.
Midlist books got published, but older titles? Important titles? The first books in a series or books by authors no longer producing new work? Those books were the first to leave the inventory.
Publishers stopped reprinting them, but kept them as company assets unless the writer or the writer’s estate asked for a reversion of rights.
The changes in the way that books reached readers continued in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. The rise of the superstore bookstore chain started then, with Barnes & Noble leading the way. These huge bookstores needed “wallpaper,” books that would sit on those far walls, almost as decoration. The bookshelves in the middle of the stores held the newer material. The older stuff went back on the walls.
But the older stuff wasn’t really old; it was mostly in-print backlist. Writers who had gone out of print a few years earlier and who didn’t advocate for a return to print or who had gotten lost in the public consciousness didn’t get reprinted.
The large chain bookstores pursued predatory business behavior against independent stores. Just like the movie You’ve Got Mail depicted, bookstore chains moved into a neighborhood with one or more established independent booksellers, offered more selection and lower prices, and drove the independents out. And as portrayed in the movie, that was both a good and bad thing. Book prices came down, more people read, but that personalized, regional service often went out the window.
The superstore chains were good for writers with established careers because the superstore chains, unlike the chains before them or the smaller independents, carried an entire series, and often the writer’s entire backlist. Writers could walk into a Barnes & Noble and find their own books that had been published two years ago, still stocked.
But other changes were happening in this period. Libraries still suffered budget cuts, and those were growing. Libraries got closed all across the country, generally due to lack of funding.
Used bookstores often filled the space left by the independents, but that was a problem too for readers. Because publishers still took books out of print too fast. So if a book had a print run of 20,000 copies, the book probably had returns of 5,000 to 10,000 copies. (In those days, it took two books printed to sell one, with the returns.) Let’s say 10,000 books actually sold. Of those 10,000 copies, 5,000 stayed in the hands of readers.
The remaining 5,000 books went into the wild. Some got destroyed, but most went to used bookstores all over the country. I couldn’t quickly find how many used bookstores there are in the country now, let alone twenty years ago. So let’s just (for the sake of math) assume there were 10,000 used bookstores. That meant one out of every two bookstores did not have a copy of that particular book.
And as the 5,000 books sold out of the used bookstores, assume the keeper rate remained the same. Half the readers kept the book. That meant that eventually there were 2,500 books in the wild (one in four bookstores had it) and then 1,250 and then and then…
You see the problem right? This was how some books became highly collectible. The availability of the book was always based on the print run, and if the book never went back to press, then the number of books in the wild was really really small.
That lead to many readers hearing about books but never being able to find them. For years and years, going to a used bookstore was like treasure hunting. Maybe this store will have that book I’ve been searching for. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Really rare books could often go for hundreds of dollars or more.
Then the real death knell hit.
Those other stores—those not-bookstores that carried books? The grocery stores, truck stops, drug stores, restaurants? They all got their books from a little local distributor down the street.
Literally down the street for me and Dean. We lived in the country, and the only people near us for about a mile were the owners of the book distributor for Lane County, Oregon. They rented a warehouse in Eugene, and they trucked books all over the county. Those folks knew that truck stops sold more romances and Louis L’Amour than the snobby bookstores near the University of Oregon. They knew that chain bookstores sold more bestsellers and the local grocery stores sold books on calorie counts. They knew every little detail about an area, and they knew who bought what kind of book.
Algorithms before Amazon, just kept in a distributor’s head (and on their rudimentary computer).
Grocery stores also chained up during these two decades. Instead of the regional large stores or the mom-and-pop stores on the corner, large grocery chains dominated. These chains funneled their invoices to corporate, and corporate hated the regional book distributors. The product was the same—books—but the invoices came from thousands of different distributors, sometimes with invoices as small as a few hundred bucks.
So giant grocery chains (my memory says Walmart and Safeway, but my memory might be wrong and I can’t find this quickly) decided they would deal with ten distributors each. Nationwide. They let the existing distributors compete for the business, and each company chose a different group of ten. (Eventually, those twenty distributors whittled down to four.)
Most of these regional book distributors didn’t have the ability to provide books at that scale. (It required a major cash outlay.) Some didn’t even try. Others tried and failed. Many of the regional companies bought other regionals just to handle the demand. But by the deadline, the grocery chains had picked ten distributors and just did business with them.
The result was twofold. Most of the regional distributors who didn’t work with the chains went out of business, including our former neighbors. Some of the distributors got bought up, but those employees (if they stayed) were busy trying to provide books to a much larger market. The initial twenty distributors who survived didn’t have time to learn that book buyers in Raleigh preferred historical novels over science fiction novels or who the local authors were in New Orleans. So all the surviving distributors did was order bestsellers and pray that those books would sell while the distributors learned how to do business on this grand scale.
The distributors learned within a year, but the damage was done. The publishers were repeatedly told that only bestsellers could get into the pipeline, so publishers only bought guaranteed bestsellers. The whole idea of growing a bestseller from a midlist book went out the window. If the books didn’t perform significantly better with each release, then the authors were jettisoned.
And backlist? Gone, at least from these distributors. The big chain bookstores started ordering directly from the publishers, setting up their own distribution arms. Midlist writers and their backlist still made it to the superstores, but not the smaller retail outlets and not to their customer base in certain regions.
And the older books didn’t stand a chance. Unless they were being released in classy editions that looked good as wallpaper.
So here’s the upshot. By the beginning of the new century, the old genre classics in science fiction, fantasy, romance, and mystery were unavailable. They weren’t in new bookstores; they had a small (and often expensive) presence in used bookstores; and they weren’t in libraries.
If someone had heard of a particular classic writer, that reader had to order the book from Amazon or eBay or some bookseller somewhere else. Maybe. If the book didn’t cost an arm and a leg.
Collectors, much as I love the ones in my life, don’t read the books they collect. They own them and display them and often won’t let anyone touch them.
Stories that would have remained in print, read, and loved for generations in the old system became unavailable.
So now that we’ve moved to the new world of publishing, a lot of these stories are being reprinted—by pirates. After Jeffro Johnson mentioned Andre Norton, I immediately looked to see what books of hers were in print. Of course, I went to ebooks first, and what I found (on a quick search at our writers lunch) were cheap pirated editions—free or 99 cents.
After I returned to my office, I looked up the estate stuff (because I had a vague memory of it), and learned that some of Andre Norton’s books are being reprinted from reputable publishers. But that hiatus while the estate was being settled plus the time it takes for books to be produced traditionally allowed a lot of pirates to get their hands on her segment of the market.
Please, folks, I beg of you, as you search for classic works, make sure that whoever you’re buying that work from is a legitimate publisher or the author herself. Because otherwise, your money will go into the pocket of a thief and the writer or his estate will make no money at all.
What happened with Andre Norton happened in a variety of ways to other older writers or writers’ estates. Copyright issues, draconian contracts, inept families running once-valuable estates, the impossibility of selling a book (for some of these writers) in the last two decades of the century caused a lot of beloved works to simply vanish.
If a writer’s work is impossible to get, then it’s impossible to become loved by a new generation.
That black hole, caused by the changes in bookselling and libraries from about 1979-2000 caused two generations to miss out on classic works of the genre. Not old moldy stuff that no one cares about, but really really good fiction that the readers would love if they only could get their hands on it.
It’s now up to us, the readers who grew up with some of this fiction, to revive it for a new generation. We need to ask for it. We need to get libraries to order it or make it available. We need to make websites devoted to older works. We need to give copies to younger readers.
The new world of publishing makes it possible for readers to find these works again. Readers just have to know these works exist and have to ask for them.
Then, when a publisher actually reprints some of these older works, we need to buy those works and give them to friends and family, and recommend those works on all of the reader sites.
We went through a few business cycles which caused an actual Dark Ages in literature. If we’re not careful, we will lose a part of our heritage that shouldn’t have gotten lost.
The more I dig into this women in science fiction project, the more I realize just how much has disappeared. The more readers contact me, the more I realize how great the generation gap is.
Young writers professing an ignorance of the past got me started on this project. These writers said that women had never had a place in science fiction, and I knew that was wrong. But when I tried to find books to disprove the point made by those writers, I couldn’t find much that was in print.
From a look at the evidence—and the dearth of materials online as well—it would seem that the young writers are right. In the Information Age, information is being lost.
I’ve told this story several times in the past month, and I’m beginning to hear from writers who are experiencing something similar in other genres. I’ll be doing what I can as a writer, editor, blogger, and part owner of a publishing house. I’m partnering with John Helfers on some projects, Baen on the big women in sf project, and with some others as I dig deeper into this morass. Dean’s helping too. He just gave me a favorite story of his by a favorite female sf writer last night.
I’m going to be asking for more.
But this is one project. There need to be many more.
And then you older readers need to step up. You need to let people know what you loved and what you think is an essential book for a well-read person to have in a personal library.
You also have to buy these books of classics when they appear. Not the pirate edition. But the real edition. The one that cost money.
I took a few days off blogging on the women in science fiction site because I was traveling and doing promotion on the release of the new Retrieval Artist book. (Dean did a great piece on how that series works into the new world of publishing. Check it out.) But I’m back blogging and reading again—and enjoying the hell out of myself.
Old fiction doesn’t mean bad fiction. Yes, occasionally, the language or some of the concepts are dated. But the storytelling isn’t.
We can resurrect our favorites, if we make it clear to publishers, editors, and other readers that we want these stories to return to print. Yes, I’m on a crusade. Yes, I think it’s time.
And I’m grateful that this new world makes reviving these works possible.
I also want to thank those of you who have made suggestions so far. You have made me realize just how deep the impact of business changes was on readers. I’ve been blogging for six years on how much these changes affected writers. I never really thought to look at the impact the changes had on what we actually read.
Thank you all for opening my eyes to that. I’m getting quite an education—in a variety of ways.
One of the fun things about these journeys I’m taking in both sf and in nonfiction blogging is the interaction with you readers. You enrich the experience so very much, with comments, knowledge, suggestions, and ideas. Thank you!
Thank you as well for the donations which keep me blogging on the publishing industry. I carve time out of my busy schedule to examine the changes in the industry because I get direct funding from all of you.
I do love the changes in this new world. I don’t think I realized the extent of the desert we had created in the past 25 years until I found the lush green hills and lagoons of this new publishing world.
“Business Musings: Hidden Treasures,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.