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December 1999
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Editorial - October/November 1999
by Gordon Van Gelder

Here at the end of the decade, I've recently heard several knowledgeable people comment on how much the landscape of publishing has shifted in the last few years. I thought I'd use the changing of the calendar as an excuse to take a quick look at some of these perceived shifts.

Conglomeratization will devour publishing. Here's a good example of the attitude I've mentioned:

"A good many people who buy books or write them are contending these days that during the past five or ten years book publishing has been transformed by a series of mergers, combinations, and other structural changes from a cottage industry into big business. And some of them go on to lament that the sensitive, cultivated Mr. Henry Holts, Mr. Alfred Harcourts, and Mr. Horace Liverights seem to have been replaced by faceless, soulless, anomic corporate enterprises."

David Klein expressed this opinion in an article entitled "The Anomic Age of Publishing." It was published in 1963 and I like to keep it on my desk as a reminder that people have been lamenting this process for longer than I've been alive. Somehow, all these mean mega-corporations haven't yet ruined the business.

The truth of matters is that no business is noble, only some of its practitioners are. For every honest businessman of yore, there was at least one crook trying to make a buck out of books. Read up on Mark Twain's publishing adventures if you don't believe me. Or look into the shenanigans of the 1920s publishers---back then, one of their favorite publicity stunts was to try to get a book banned.

I got in the business around the time of the big Bantam, Doubleday, and Dell merger and people predicted doom then. Somehow, even after they joined forces, that big mega- corporation managed to publish a lot of first novels, a host of books that will be classics, a lot of short-story collections, and many offbeat, hard-to-classify books. The nerve of them!

I'm sure there are examples of conglomeratization where the publisher didn't fare as well. I'd also point to Tor Books as an example of a company that has flourished since it got bought by a bigger fish, but since I work for that bigger fish, you might want discount my claim.

What is hard to overlook, however, is the fact that books are singular things. Most corporations are run by people who are smart enough to recognize that fact.

In short, I've seen the landscape here shift, but not change fundamentally.

Giant bookstore chains will rule the world. This trend isn't as old as the previous one---I've watched most of it develop over the past decade. And while I thought Barnes & Noble was particularly appalling in the way it drove away small businesses around the country to seize certain markets, I haven't seen much of a fundamental change in the landscape here.

One reason for my sanguine attitude about the chains is that I've had many occasions to hunt for copies of older books or titles from smaller presses. Here in New York, I found the smaller bookstores were less helpful generally and I frequently ended my quest on the shelves of a large chain store . . . thus ending my belief in the claim that the megastores would hurt the small presses. There's no substitute for good, enthusiastic management and staff. As it happens, the single most knowledgeable and helpful clerk I've ever encountered was in a chain bookstore outside of Chicago.

One change I have seen is that the sf specialty stores have been dying off this decade . . . replaced, it seems, with mystery specialty stores. I'm not sure, but I think that the sf stores were more vital in the 1970s, when it was harder to find copies of the genre books. I do know that I haven't had any trouble finding copies of specific sf or fantasy titles in recent years, and the sf shops that are managed best look to me like they're faring well.

Some doomsayers talk with dread about the fact that publishers will consult with the bookstore chains before publishing various titles. This is bad? Was it bad in the 1970s when Judy-Lynn del Rey phoned up the people running various sf stores and asked them which authors were most in demand?

Publishing has gotten ruder. Here is one area where I think I have seen changes for the worse. Several years ago, I received an unagented book proposal from a woman with three novels to her credit. I declined the book, and shortly afterwards, got a nice note from her thanking me for taking the time to respond---she said that most publishers never bothered to do so. From what I've seen, this practice doesn't stem for an active desire to be rude so much as it originates in the notion that writers without agents are nobodies. Larger publishers nowadays frequently adopt a policy of not even reading unagented submissions, claiming to be too busy to do so. Personally, I think this trend is the worst one I've seen . . . but I also know that it assures the smaller publishers a healthy niche. The more dinosaurs leave their eggs unattended, the more small mammals can swoop in and gobble up the good ones.

Media tie-ins will destroy our field. Recently I heard a writer describe his process of writing a tie-in as "a cross between writing a Planet Stories story and writing one for Wonder Stories." The tie-ins have replaced many of the pulpier elements of the sf field, and while I'd rather see the writer in question working on more original and personal books, we both understand the importance of paying the rent. Tie-ins have grown in popularity during the past decade, but they haven't replaced the most innovative elements of the field and they threaten to do so no more than say, the Tom Swift books did in the 1950s.

Kids don't read sf anymore. When I was growing up, parents worried that kids would no longer read at all. If the mail I receive here is any indication, we're facing no shortage of young readers for sf and fantasy. I don't know that all the YA sf novels published in recent years will make a difference. Isn't part of the joy of discovering sf at the Golden Age of twelve or thirteen the joy in reading books on a par with adults? The prototypical sf reader has always been a brainy sort, inclined to read above his or her level. What we need (always!) are more stories that will fill our heads---kids and grown-ups alike---with that lovely sense of wonder at the universe.

Kids don't attend sf conventions anymore. From what I've observed, there's truth to this assertion. I'm convinced the change has come because this is because the Internet fills most of their needs. Way back when, conventions were just about the only place a kid could go where he'd find anyone who read "that weirdo sci-fi stuff" and would discuss it with equal fervor. Nowadays, anyone can find the same sort of discussion online. Plus, the whole "cult" aspect of the genre---in the sense of being something dedicated to preserving that which otherwise would be lost- --has been supplanted by the World Wide Web. Time was when you could only find old sf novels at conventions; now you can search on the computer in five minutes and find most anything.

This column's running longer than I intended, but let me note a couple more changes I've seen: first novels are easier to sell than they once were; third novels are harder to sell than before; fewer fanzines seem to be published with equal fervor (or is that just my misperception, coupled with a nostalgia for mimeographs?); books are generally longer than they used to be (thank you, o word processor); and most writers are still misunderstood.

And while I'm on the subject of change, let me note that we have a change in our reviewing line-up. Doug Winter's career as a novelist has started to take off, leaving him with less time for a regular review column. While we haven't heard the last from him, his replacement in the regular rotation is James Sallis. Jim was once an editor of New Worlds and has written reviews and criticism for the Washington Post Book World, The L. A. Times, and a host of other publications. I think he's one of the sharpest reviewers around and I think you'll find his columns interesting.

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