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’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.
. . . .
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.
. . . .
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.
. . . .
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.
. . . .
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.
. . . .
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.
. . . .
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.
. . . .
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.
. . . .
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 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.
. . . .
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.
PG can’t think of anyone blogging who puts the present book business in context with the past as well as Kris does. She does a great many other things well, but she’s unique in this respect.