19 February 2016

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

Laura Anne Gilman [mentions book-shaming].  . . . [S]he defines book-shaming better than I could. She writes about discovering books science fiction and fantasy books as a teenager, and the response she got from the adults around her:

I didn’t want Martian princess or philosophical musings under an alien sky, Le Guin’s elegant questioning, Donaldson’s cynicism, or Tolkien’s gorgeous language.  I didn’t even want dragons, per se.  I wanted books that weren’t afraid – or ashamed – to lead with their emotion.

But trying to explain this to people, especially as a female teenager… even from the most well-meaning people, I got a significant amount of book-shaming, as though an emotion-led book somehow wasn’t as acceptable, that it was lowbrow, downmarket, teenaged female.

Oh, I remember those days. I read everything I could find, much to my parents’ chagrin. (And they were big readers.) They wouldn’t tell me not to read a book—although my dad’s remaining three hairs stood on end when he found me reading his Harold Robbins novel—but my folks would often look down their noses at me and say things like, “You’ll understand that better when you’re an adult.”

Which was like a red flag in front of a bull, let me tell you. In those days, I was a lot more polite than I am now, but just as stubborn. So I would often take the books offered instead of what I was reading, read those as well and continue reading what I want. I remember reading All The President’s Men in my junior high school English class, my parents’ hardcover volume tucked inside my English literature text. My teacher caught me, and told me I wouldn’t understand that book.

. . . .

Book-shaming. I’ll be so happy if that term disappears because we no longer need it.

Right now, however, I think it has moved to another part of the industry. Writers are suffering a lot of book-shaming right now. Or should I say publishing-shaming.

Once upon a time in a land far far away, there was only one method to publish books and have those books read by more than five people. We now call that method traditional publishing. Back in those dark days, there were dozens of traditional publishing houses (instead of the Big 5 and a few hangers-on we have now), so writers had some choice there.

A handful of daring writers would self-publish a book. Mostly, those writers were also advertising executives or salesmen in their daily lives, and knew how to move product.

. . . .

Dean and I learned the arcane practice of book distribution when we started Pulphouse Publishing nearly 30 years ago. Because we learned that practice in the bad old days, when publishing was hard and distribution required climbing mountain peaks in a blizzard just to consult with some damn oracle who might deign to take your book and pay you pennies on the dollar to distribute it (with returns, of course), we were not afraid to take on indie publishing in the early days. Indie publishing seemed—and it turned out to be—a lot easier.

However, when you’re dealing with a closed system like traditional publishing used to be, it’s exponentially more difficult to operate outside of that system. The system becomes Important in and of itself. Writers use all kinds of words to describe the system—from gatekeepers to traditional publishers to…well, let’s not go there. The fact remains, however, that a closed system forces anyone who wants to work inside it to do a special dance just to make sure they can come to the party.

. . . .

The thing is, in an entrenched system like music was, and like traditional publishing was, these people, who were essentially untalented business owners or employees of corporations, took on great importance. And then they came to believe they were important.

Once upon a time in a land far far away, these power brokers actually had a modicum of power. And they used it or abused it with startling regularity. When the power brokers said, “This type of book is no good,” then the people who bought books for libraries or who stocked major bookstores or who bought for The Book of the Month Club (once an important institution) listened to them, and wouldn’t acquire that book.

Once upon a time, my friends, this snobbery was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Oh, sure, there were a lot of us who read other books. Many people didn’t admit it to their friends. I did, if asked. But mostly I kept quiet about what I read. So did most of the sf readers I knew and the romance readers I knew. The fact that the snobs hated those kinds of books built both the sf community and the romance community as havens from book-shaming.

But now these power brokers no longer have real power. They’re losing their grip on taste-making. Not because they have lost their positions of power, but their positions have lost that power.

. . . .

These days, people who self-publish or who run indie companies to publish their books, make more money and have more fans than new writers coming up the traditional way—even with all the backing of traditional publishers. Books with tons of push, shoved into the old taste-maker system, no longer become the books discussed in every living room and coffee shop. Book clubs discuss indie books these days as well as traditionally published books. Libraries buy indie books for the shelves. So do bookstores.

But the shaming has moved to new heights. People in those old positions of power worry that most of the indie published books are crap. They believe that readers have no taste and must be led to good books. These power brokers are afraid of word of mouth, unless the words come from their mouths.

So they’re shaming writers. These former power brokers, many of whom have lost their jobs in traditional publishing, are telling writers that they need development editors to make sure their finished book is “good.”

(Why can’t readers tell them that—by buying the book? Or maybe, if the writer’s really nervous, a few trusted first readers who are not writers and won’t tamper with the manuscript?)

Over and over again, writers hear that they shouldn’t self publish. They’re not “ready.” Or they wouldn’t know how to write “quality.” Or they don’t want that “stigma.”

The fear of the stigma of self-publishing sends many new writers to equally new small presses. Many of these presses are worse than their traditional publishing counterparts. These presses don’t know what they’re doing, they have no idea how to design or publish a book, and they don’t understand contracts. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the worst contracts I’ve seen lately have come through indie published writers and the indie small presses. And that’s a crime.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch and thanks to Rhonda and others for the tip.

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

Big Publishing, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, The Business of Writing

28 Comments to “Book-Shaming”

  1. Ah, two more nice things about Amazon and the kindle …

    One lets anyone self publish, the other doesn’t tell anyone what you’re reading …

    No wonder some people are upset, they can’t try to shame what they can’t see/find …

    • No wonder some people are upset, they can’t try to shame what they can’t see/find …

      Cue the complaints about how e-readers and e-books are undermining parents’ ability to “protect” their kids in 3…2…1…

      • Heh, only the idiots. 😉

        The ones so busy trying to childproof the world they’ve forgotten all about world-proofing their child.

        • Some forget, yeah. But others do it on purpose. Infantilzation, control, etc.

          • Yup, had one for a sister-in-law in fact. She did everything in her power to keep their son from learning how to manage money. (my brother divorced her but waited until the kid hit 18 so mommy couldn’t use kiddo as a bargaining chip.)

            The fun part came when the kid (already married) joined the military and mom gave him a credit card to help them get by.

            The ‘ex’ called my brother a few months later, seems kiddo had maxed the card with things that included a $1000 puppy — and what was my brother going to do about it?

            As my brother reported it later, he’d managed to not laugh into the phone as he pointed out two little things. 1) He wasn’t the one that had kept the boy ignorant in managing money, and 2) He wasn’t the one that gave a credit card to someone he knew was ignorant in managing money …


            “History repeats itself: First as tragedy, then as farce.” – Marx got that one right at least.

      • Yeah, but it wouldn’t hold water. Presumably, the devices are in the parents’ house, so they could easily confiscate them if they don’t like what’s on them.

        That said, I don’t think my parents ever paid attention to what I put in the dead-tree bookcase in my room. Including the not-intended-for-kids vampire book my then-bachelor uncle had given me when I was ~12. I do wonder if his stance has changed now that he has kids of his own 🙂

        • Oh, it’s certainly bad logic. But it’ll get trussed up in nice-sounding language and seriously used to justify parental control and to condemn “too lenient” parents. Some folks are doing this already.

        • “Presumably, the devices are in the parents’ house, so they could easily confiscate them if they don’t like what’s on them. ”

          Ah, but they’d have to pick it up and look at/through it, where as a ‘book’ shows off its cover for all the world to see. And unless they snatch it from your hands because you were laughing/crying/cursing enough to catch their notice, there are many ways to hide what you’re reading — if you have the kind of parents you need to hide things from …

          (and if it’s that bad, I understand the FBI is having problems breaking into iPhones … 😉 )

        • When the kids came along, I made sure to pack away my graphic novels and certain books with disturbing content.

          Keeping the graphic novels away were a good idea, not so much the books, considering the kids read what they wanted, but never went near the Laurell K. Hamilton Merry Gentry series, or the steamy romances, or James Joyce’s Ulysses, or my Hunter Thompson or William Burroughs books, even though they’re all on the shelves.

      • Doesn’t Amazon already enable that on Fire tablets? FreeTime or some such? Parental controls and a more limited experience so that kids can use the tablet but with certain restrictions in place?

        • Truly they do.
          Most gaming consoles and TVs already have parental controls.
          It shut up the professional hand-wringers.

  2. Everyone believes (whether they admit it out loud or not) that their own opinions, world-views and taste is the BEST: The truest, most accurate, and superior. If they didn’t, they’d change those opinions and taste…
    Therefore, of course, if you have a different taste in reading, it’s just further conformation of your inferiority, intellectual and probably moral, right?

    • Everyone believes […] that their own opinions, world-views and taste is the BEST: The truest, most accurate, and superior. If they didn’t, they’d change those opinions and taste…

      False. I define my tastes as “best” for me, not an objective “best”—and I’m well aware that they’re not good and could even be outright harmful for some others, whereas some things others like are not good for me.

    • When I think about just how much of everyone’s personality is completely out of their control because our thoughts are just a collection of chemical and electrical signals in our brains, I find it a lot easier to just say whatever to all of it. People don’t change much, because it’s not so easy to change the physical stuff that makes up the rest. 🙂

      • I learned, once I had kids, that nature-nurture is about 80-20. Unless you abuse your kids either through tiger-moming or actual harm.

        Now, whenever I read about some study or advocate who says otherwise, I look at their bio. If they don’t have kids, the bar rises.

    • Everyone believes (whether they admit it out loud or not) that their own opinions, world-views and taste is the BEST: The truest, most accurate, and superior. If they didn’t, they’d change those opinions and taste…

      Is that opinion the BEST?

  3. Laura was my editor at Berkley.

  4. You can’t be shamed if you don’t agree to be shamed. And don’t care what the shamers think. 🙂

    • Not necessarily true, if the shamers have literal power over you.

      • Especially if they’re parents or other authority figures when you’re young and impressionable. The kind of toxic shame abused children encounter can set them up for a lifetime of emotional suffering. And some leaders use the same tactics as abusive families to brainwash those under them. Even in small doses, shame can be a powerful motivator as it’s one of the most unpleasant emotions we experience.

    • Agreed. In high school, I followed a strategy some upper classmen had advised: always have at least one “easy A” class to ensure you avoid burnout. In senior year, senioritis was approaching, and I jumped at the chance to take a science fiction class when it was offered. I was giddy as a school girl.

      But a teacher, one of my favorites no less, tried to stop me from signing up. Apparently the class was only intended for those kids who weren’t college material, so it would be “beneath me” to take it. I insisted, especially as it was taught by another favorite teacher, the one who’d taught my art history / Western civ class.

      I could have been “shamed,” but I couldn’t be bothered, so I wasn’t. I prevailed against the first teacher’s better judgment, which meant I got to read “Earth Abides” and some of the stories in “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. 1: 1929-1964.”

      Good times. Book-shaming, don’t give in. Publish-shaming, ignore: publishers don’t have enough money to make you put up with their crap.

  5. I think a large part of the hard scifi revival has to do with self-publishing. For a long time, publishers looked down at scifi. Sure, Kazuo Ishiguro could get away with it, because he was “literary.” It took the success of WOOL and The Martian before they admitted they were wrong, now all the trad publishers have scifi imprints.

    • Every one of the Big Five (and their immediate predecessors) had an SF imprint long before self-publishing became viable for fiction. (Tor is part of Macmillan; Del Rey, Roc, and Ace are RHP imprints; Orbit is Hachette; etc., etc.) Those imprints were, and still are, part of the genre ghetto in each company. So no, nothing has changed in that respect.

    • I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that science has caught up with fiction in a lot of ways. Like, I’m not even sure I’d have thought of The Martian as “science fiction,” because I’ve pretty much always thought of science fiction as based on science that doesn’t already exist yet. Time and FTL travel, distant alien worlds with extraterrestrial life, etc.

      Like, I can’t think of anything about The Martian that doesn’t seem possible. We got the Rover up there, so at this point it’s probably just a function of enough time and money for the right program to get Matt Damon up there and leave him up there for a couple years.

      And heck, the Hollywood Foreign Press shelved it in “Comedy,” apparently. 😉

  6. Anyone feel shame because they are literate? Could we shame you into feeling shame for being literate?

    The shamed empower the shamer.

  7. So, when we talk about book shaming, are we referring to the minority of the public who were readers and preferred those books where they needed to search for the hidden meanings in the stories? I never bothered to listen to them and when I worked in books, I directed those parents who wanted to encourage their children to read to these very same books, Heinlein and Asimov, Tolkien, McCaffrey, Peter S. Beagle, Watership Down, sports books. The point for me was to lose yourself in the story. Those who would try to shame you were basically trying to conform you to their own particular preferences and prejudices.

  8. Hi Kristine,

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this with us. ‘Book shaming’ is such a relevant topic for both writers and readers, and one I feel very passionately about.

    The notion of ‘book shaming’ was most prominent for me when I was doing a creative writing degree. There was definitely a degree of ‘snobbery’ when it came to what you were reading (YA fantasy for example) versus what you ‘should’ be reading (literary fiction).

    This then naturally extended to what you were writing, with many impressionable young writers then feeling pressured to write literary fiction when perhaps it wasn’t their forte.

    When it comes to reading and writing, I’ve learnt that I should immerse myself in what I love, and try to drown out the background noise.

    The same goes for traditional publishing vs. indie publishing – the author needs to do what’s right for them and their book, and ignore the rest as best they can.

    Thanks again for sharing!

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