For the Love of Pete, Don’t Mix Your Genres;
Or… The New York Times Book Review Hates YOU, but I Don’t;
Or… Why Where Your Book Gets Shelved Determines Your Intelligence, Work-Ethic and Value to Society
Part 2: The New York Times Book Review Hates YOU, But I Don’t.
We have just seen how we, the prejudiced book-buyers, are at least partially to blame for the state of the publishing industry. But why are we so prejudiced in the first place? Simple, we have been taught to be prejudiced! By whom, you may ask? Well, by everyone, of course. As readers we tell each other that the greatest strength of all, the most important thing to be, is critical – and by this we almost always mean deeply, embarrassingly prejudiced. I don’t know that we mean to do it. But we do. We take sides. EVERYONE takes sides – including both publishers and reviewers. I’m not sure why publishers do it. I have some theories, but nothing that makes sense from a business perspective. As for reviewers, they do it because they are human beings, and so labor under a host of imperatives and misconceptions that arise both as a result of the needs of their peculiar business and their prejudicial upbringing as readers.
Let’s start (and more or less end) with the BIG reviewers, publications like The New York Times Book Review (I choose that rag because it’s my hometown nest of vipers, and because it’s a good representative, not because they are the only such publication), henceforth to be called the NYTBR for laziness reasons. What a great many of us (maybe all of us) know is that the NYTBR is deeply conservative in their absolute fealty to that aforementioned monolith, ‘literary’ fiction. They throw a bone to the imaginative types every once in a while – likely to keep us from kicking their doors down – but at heart they are deeply prejudiced against fantasy, sci-fi, horror, YA, romance and all the rest of the so-called ‘genres.’
Don’t believe me? Just for fun, let’s see what the NYTBR thought of The Name of the Wind, a book that was all the buzz of the fantasy world just a couple years ago. It won awards, was almost universally praised by readers and online reviewers, and given all sorts of stars by pre-publication reviews like Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. So what did the NYTBR think? Hmmm… You know, they don’t seem to have reviewed that book. It was on their best-seller list… but no review. Still, they can’t review EVERY book. Even good ones have to get left off once in a while. So let’s make it easier on the poor NYTBR. I know; I’ll link to their very best review for any book by Janny Wurts. She’s got so many books. Surely they’ve reviewed at least… What’s that? Not even one review? But she’s an almost universally admired fantasist! Obviously I’m being too tricky. Let’s try a really easy one. Let’s look for the NYTBR of the first Harry Potter novel. Hooray! We found a genre novel that the NYTBR seems to have found worthy of reviewing! http://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/14/books/children-s-books-199338.html I feel good about this. I really do. Maybe the NYTBR isn’t quite as prejudiced as I thought.
But wait, Harry Potter debuted in this country in October of 1998, and they didn’t review it until February of 1999, after it was already a huge success overseas, winning awards by the bushel, and vacuuming up piles of cash. You don’t think the old gray girl printed a review so that she wouldn’t seem totally out of touch? I mean really, how rare is it to have a book four months old getting reviewed by the NYTBR? It must happen all the time, right? No? But not never, surely. Only for books they somehow missed the first time around? But how in the name of Thor did they miss Harry? He was GREAT! Everyone knows that now. Even they know it NOW, it seems. So how did they miss it back in October of 1998?
The answer, of course, is that Harry Potter is a part of two genres that the NYTBR is prejudiced against, namely fantasy and YA. And the NYTBR is not alone. The simple fact is that ‘genre’ work is ghettoized by big print media. It’s not that there’s a lack of excellent science fiction, YA, romance, fantasy or horror being published – I think even the editors of the NYTBR would agree that there most assuredly is – its just that those types of works are not really eligible for those types of big national reviews. The exception, of course, being ‘genre’ works by established ‘literary’ stars like Cormac McCarthy. The NYTBR loved The Road, and well they should. I loved it myself. It was probably no worse than the fourth or fifth best post-apocalyptic novel I have read (none of the others won Pulitzers, however). But let’s face facts, it is a sci-fi novel as sure as anything.
So what’s wrong with big print media focusing on ‘literary’ fiction? Remember the accusations our friend Sonya Chung made? It’s so much easier to be a writer of ‘imaginative’ fiction, right? The ‘literary’ types need their big print reviews or else they’d dry up and blow away. Is this correct?
Let’s be honest, fantasy readers are not one whit more likely to pick up a fantasy novel by a writer they have never heard of than your ‘literary’ type is to pick up a novel by a writer she has never heard of, regardless of the quality of the book. But without a big voice backing them, the kind only big print media has, how exactly is the average reader supposed to hear about new books and new writers in the realm of imaginative fiction? The internet does huge service in that regard (thank god), but it’s a crapshoot at best. Even the most visited sites have only a fraction of the readership of the NYTBR, and are more often than not staffed by a tiny group of dedicated reviewers, nowhere near the numbers necessary to give each and every book a shot. The one way in which internet reviewers truly have it over big print media is that they for the most part do what they do for love, and so are not as irreparably bound in by prejudice as the NYTBR and its ilk. Sure they have specialties, but as they are more like Mom and Pop enterprises there are no corporate sponsors who will cry if they decide to go outside their normal milieu.
Well, now THAT is a horrendous accusation! Am I suggesting that big print media is somehow bought? That they are beholden to some faceless corporate sponsor? I am not. The corporate sponsors are anything but faceless. You need only get a copy of any of those big reviews and glance at the advertisers to get a taste for who really owns those publications. So who are these advertisers? I bet you already guessed it! The publishers themselves.
If you’re like me, the whole sickening nature of these big print reviews is starting to come into focus. But there is one more major player – as usual, the most major player – the identification of which will go that much farther toward explaining why the NYTBR hates You. And that is $$$$$$.
I am going to admit something which may surprise some of you. I used to work in publishing. I worked for an agent. It was a good job, with lots of free books, an inside view of the industry, and the opportunity to converse with loads of talented, dedicated people who all cared about the same sorts of things I cared about (and still do). But one of the things I learned while working at the agency is that book advances are not equal, and really confusing. And this is where the whole pot begins to bubble over.
You see, the bigger publishing houses pay huge advances to the ‘literary’ types. I can remember, all too often, high six-figure advances for first novels. FIRST NOVELS! Unless you’re hugely famous and a proven money-maker, you are not going to get that type of advance for any sort of ‘genre’ novel. But we don’t even need to use those huge six figure advances to see where the problem lies. Let’s imagine that our friend Sonya Chung (the ‘literary’ apologist we so enjoyed eviscerating above), got an advance of $20K for her forthcoming first novel (A lot of my genre friends are salivating, I know – and believe me, in the world of ‘literary’ fiction 20K is NOTHING). If she gets 10% (the standard royalty rate) of the sale price of every book sold at a cover price of $25, she would have to sell eight-thousand copies just to earn her advance (royalty rates do escalate as you sell more copies, but this is a good place to start). If we believe her rhetoric, that ‘literary’ books are so underappreciated and undersold, how in the name of heaven is she going to sell 8000 copies? And what if she has to sell enough to earn back $60K? Or more? How many books do those six figure advances have to sell? The mind boggles, and I think we can all agree that her publisher had better get busy making sure that we all hear about her book pronto!
Of course, that’s where the NYTBR comes in. They may not be willing to review books by relatively unknown fantasy writers like Patrick Rothfuss or Janny Wurts, but they review first novels by ‘literary’ types all the time! (A recent example: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/28/books/review/Thomas-t.html?ref=books) They have to! If they don’t constantly turn out a stream of information about the ‘literary’ newcomers, the publishers are going to go broke! And then who will buy ads in their publication?
The worst part about this is that, during the six years I spent working at the agency, there were only a handful of times when these ‘literary’ works actually managed to earn their advances. I won’t name names, but suffice to say that there are biggies in the field of ‘literary’ fiction who have likely never received a royalty check, and never expect to. Which means, undoubtedly, that the big ‘genre’ writers – folks like Dean Koontz, Nora Roberts and Dan Brown (the very writers Sonya Chung so damns) – as well as a whole army of struggling lesser-known imaginative writers, are in essence subsidizing the losses incurred by all those poor ‘literary’ types like Sonya Chung! And she has the gall to hate us?
You may ask yourself, why don’t the publishers simply stop giving out those huge advances to unknown, underperforming and underwhelming ‘literary’ writers? Then ‘literary’ fiction could take its rightful place as one genre among many; the NYTBR and its brethren could begin to review based on quality rather than prejudice; and as readers we could all hope that the cream of real literature might rise to the top, regardless of what color cow the milk came from. You know the strangest part? Holding back the huge advances would, in the long run, help the vast majority of the ‘literary’ writers as well, most of whom find themselves laboring under ever-growing records of low sales and losses, which even the publishers begin to see as odious (making future books that much more difficult to get published at all, regardless of quality. Remember this, oh hopeful writers, ALL failures are ultimately laid upon the head of the author!). It sounds so easy! So why don’t they just stop giving all those debilitating advances? Now that is a question I can not answer. In fact, no one can. No one knows the answer to that question. At any rate, don’t expect it to happen anytime soon. Nor should you expect the NYTBR to begin to see the light of openness, impartiality or artistic achievement in the ‘genres.’
So let’s all give a big hand to our master-mixologists, John DeNardo, Tia Nevitt and John Ottinger, as well as to all of their fellow philosophers of the fantastic, fun and imaginative, for keeping some tiny spark of hope alive for the new ‘genre’ writer. Without them, frankly, our side would be sunk.
And just to finish this topic off completely, keep in mind that there are ‘genres’ where the problems of prejudice and publicity are even more acute. Fantasy does pretty well for itself, all things considered. Think what would have happened in the present climate to some of our classics? JD Salinger died the other day. What do you think would have happened to his classic novel, The Catcher in the Rye, if it came out tomorrow, labeled and shelved as YA? What would have become of our poor friend Huck Finn, if he’d been published last year? Would the NYTBR give either Holden or Huck the time of day? You can bet your life that it would NOT.
This brings me at long last to that bit of advice I promised for all the up and coming writers hoping to make a first sale. I offer no writing tricks, only a word of warning about what to write if you hope to get published and sell a big pile of books . . .
Justin was born in Boise, Idaho in 1974. He graduated from Boise State University with a degree in philosophy, and from Columbia University with an MFA in fiction. He is the author, most recently, of Year of the Horse, an all-ages fantasy-western that tells the story of sixteen-year-old Yen Tzu-lu, the child of Chinese immigrants and one of a band of treasure hunters brought together from every corner of the continent to recapture a stolen gold mine. Leading Tzu-Lu and his gang is the gunslinger Jack Straw, a figure who is as much legend as reality, as much magic as lead. Ultimately, this band of outsiders finds it must learn to live together, trust and care for one another. If they make it across a wild continent, they’ll be rich; if they don’t, they’ll surely be dead. Get your copy at Indiebound (why not support your local store?), BN.com, or Amazon.
Justin is roughly six feet tall, weighs somewhere around 185 pounds (often more, to his chagrin), has dark-brown hair and eyes, and suffers from near-sightedness, motion-sickness, and a tendency to get angry at airport personnel. His wife, Day Mitchell, a licensed master social worker, is trying to help him overcome this last item, but finds the going hard.
He can be contacted via justin-allen.com.
If you have comments or flames for Justin, he will be hanging out at Grasping for the Wind. Don’t leave them here unless you just want to talk to me.