Wednesday, 23 May 2012


E-books have proved me wrong. I'm quite willing to admit it. For years I said that e-books were the "flying car" of literature, always on the horizon, but never really coming into fruition. Well, now they're everywhere, with Amazon and Apple battling for e-book supremacy, and publishers dedicating themselves to these electronic wonders.

Now I see the limitations to this medium, publishers and their obsession with DRM, the temptation of distracting apps being added to your reader, and the simple fact that if you doze off while reading you might be in danger of losing a couple of hundred bucks worth of electronics instead of only risking losing your page.

However, I also see the potentials, and apparently so does the venerable Esquire magazine which is launching a new line of e-books described as "Fiction for Men."

But that's not all, let's see how the line's editor defines "Fiction for Men."
"Fiction for Men." is "plot-driven and exciting, where one thing happens after another."
It sort of shows the sorry state of the publishing world when the stories that have interesting plots, excitement and lots of things happening is considered a brilliant marketing ploy for an under-served audience.

Exciting plot driven fiction used to be the foundation of the industry. Look back at the history of literature and you will see that a lot of the works that we now consider "classics" actually started out as works designed to make a buck for their authors by giving the audience what they wanted. Interesting characters up to their necks in complex plots with elements of mystery, excitement, and even humor.

That used to be the hallmark of all fiction. Sure, some of it may now seem tedious by today's standards, but for their time, they were rollicking thrill rides.

A rift began to form after World War 1, when Modernism crept into literature. Modernism stated that only works that met certain criteria could count as "important" enough to be considered "literature" while everything else was considered "trash" or unworthy regardless of the quality of the individual works in question.

However publishers have bills to pay, and there was money to be made in "trash" in the form of pulp magazines, and later cheaply produced paperback novels. Paperback books, first invented in Germany, but first really successful in Britain in the 1930s, made it possible to not only buy a novel cheaply, but to be able to stick it in your pocket and read while you're on the train or the plane.

A lot of paperbacks were reprints of books originally published in hardcover, but a lot of companies pumped out a steady stream of paperback originals. This led to competition between the paperback books and the pulp magazines, with the paperbacks whittling down their piece of the market. 

One of the big markets for both paperback books and pulp magazines were men. The whole "men's adventure" genre was created for this market, specializing in tales of adventure where men battled elements, animals, and human foes, rescued sexy damsels in distress, and lived to tell the tale. Lots of writers got their start selling stories to these magazines and books, lovingly called the "sweats" by industry insiders.

However, the conditions of the industry changed. The market changed with the rise of the Baby Boom generation and shifts in public attitudes. Baby Boomers didn't want stories of two-fisted action-adventure in their magazines because it either didn't relate to their relatively comfortable lives, was seen as a tacky remnant of their war-mongering racist sexist predecessors, or was just beneath them. Meanwhile the magazines themselves, desperate to reclaim lost market share became more and more lurid and sleazy, some even transforming into outright pornography, which was also competing with them for eyeballs.

Paperback action-adventures continued chugging along, but bit by bit the authors who made it successful in the immediate post-war years began to either die off, or decline in output and/or quality. The market, once open to new authors began to close up, dealing with a declining number of declining authors. Those new authors who would have taken the "men's fiction" sub-genres into the needed new directions moved onto the now more mainstream thriller, science fiction, and horror genres.

Meanwhile the rift between "literary" and "genre" fiction widened, as the publishing industry began to dominated by people indoctrinated in college on the necessity of "importance" in literature. They still depended on the "lesser" genre works to pay the bills, but they sure as hell weren't going to give them any respect.

A telling story is about Stephen King. He was the biggest selling author in the world at the time, outselling everyone else on his publisher's list by a factor of ten, but every time he went to their New York office for a meeting, his editor had to re-introduce him to everyone there, because no one beyond his editor could remember who he was.

That's right, he was the one man responsible for the company's profit margin, and they didn't give a shit about who he was, or what he did because they didn't consider him "literary." King, and the profits he made, moved onto another publisher the first chance he could.

Meanwhile, action adventure fiction saw a bit of a revival in the form of the "techno-thriller" boom of the 80s and 90s that started with Tom Clancy's explosive success. This new genre was all about elite spies, and special forces types using meticulously researched high technology to battle bad guys all over the world in nice big fat tomes that definitely can barely fit into briefcase, let alone a pocket.

That too became a problem. 

Pressure was put on writers to make books fatter, to justify the prices publishers were asking for. Works smaller than 80,000-100,000 words (depending on the publisher) became essentially unprintable unless you were already some sort of "celebrity" author who could get away with it. To justify these sizes works had to be more "important" putting an almost impossible onus on new authors looking to break into the business. New authors had to pop out of the egg fully formed and perfect in every way, or belong to some sort of clique that has an 'in' with the industry to get past the gatekeepers who are already "too busy" chasing reality TV stars and D-List celebrities with overpriced book deals.

People are reading more now than in recent decades, and they're reading lots more genre fiction. But the industry is in rough financial shape, pissing away millions of dollars chasing fads and celebrities as some sort of panacea while actively driving away new talent that exists outside of their increasingly narrowing circles.

Meanwhile writers previously considered "literary" writers are diving into genre fiction. Not just for the money, but for the simple fact that actually being entertaining is more of a challenge to a writer than just being "important" to a handful of a editors, critics, and academics.

E-books have the potential to become the training ground for emerging writers, the way the old pulp magazines and paperbacks used to be. They're inexpensive to produce, can be shipped anywhere in the world instantly, and can be read anywhere by anyone.

I think all publishers should start e-book imprints dedicated solely to finding new talent in "exciting & plot-driven" genre fiction, not just for men, but for everyone. It's a low-risk/high-reward proposition that I suspect most publishers won't go for, because it would require effort and quick decision making on their part.


  1. Do you think that new authors should self-publish their e-books? Should they just put them out there, or should they seek out publishers who produce a lot of e-books?

  2. Some authors should publish their own e-books. But not every author can, and it boils down to salesmanship. Some people are masters of self promotion and could sell ice to the Inuit. However most can set up the publishing of the book via one of the new self-publishing services out there, but completely freeze up when it come to marketing.

    Also, there's the element of editing. Most works could use at least a once over by an intelligent and experienced editor, and while there are freelance editors out there, it adds the other tricky problem of finding the editor that is right for you and your project. Something a publisher with a functioning brain could do for you, so you can go write your next project.

    Publishers still have a place, but the industry is horrendously dysfunctional, narrow minded, inefficient, and from what I've personally experienced actually arrogantly smug about it. I actually had a publisher sit on one of my works for SEVEN YEARS before rejecting it, possibly for being too dated, without any acknowledgement that they did anything wrong in their handling of the submission.

    Some drastic reform, and maybe some humility, is needed in the publishing industry.

  3. Interesting that you should show the infamous "Weasels Ripped My Flesh!" cover - Weasels Ripped My Flesh! is a new anthology of some of the very "men's magazine" stories you mention in your post.

  4. It is the most notorious title going around, and was even used in a Frank Zappa album.

  5. Rainforest Giant here,

    Confess, after seeing those covers I know you're James Lileks. I always thought I detected the faint aroma of corn fed Midwest under all that bacony Canada.

  6. Rainforest Giant- Sorry, I'm not really James Lileks, though I have heard of him. As for being from the Midwest the closest I ever got to that region was a visit to Michigan a few years ago.

    I'm an East Coaster born & bred.