Mass Market Paperbacks – The Death Spiral

The other day I got a striking reminder that the distribution of mass market paperback books, at least in the fantasy and science fiction field, is getting close to a death spiral (perhaps I’m exaggerating, but the situation isn’t good for lovers of the mass market paperback).

I was contacted by an independent book store that informed me that one of the mass-market paperbacks in the Imager Portfolio was being listed as indefinitely out of print. When I contacted Tor, I learned that the paperback in question wasn’t selling all that well. That struck me as rather odd, because I was under the impression that the Imager books were all selling nicely. Well… I obviously hadn’t looked closely enough at my royalty statements. The book in question has been selling quite nicely. It sold well in hardcover and e-book, and sold well – initially – in mass market, but in the last two years, it’s tanked in mass market, although e-book sales remain strong.

I wanted to know why paperback sales had dropped. So I asked. The reason given by Tor was that, while mass market paperbacks still sell well in independent bookstores, that’s because they’re more frequently carried as back stock by independent bookstores, while Barnes & Noble, the largest brick and mortar outlet for physical books, has been cutting back on carrying back stock paperbacks that aren’t selling extremely quickly.

Without the demand by B&N, the publishers can’t afford to reprint backlist titles nearly so often, since there are so few independent bookstores that have large stocks of fantasy and science fiction, and the publishers can’t afford to keep large inventories because of the federal tax laws under the Thor Power Tool precedent. As explained here: Thor Decision

But… if the titles aren’t on the shelves, that reduces the demand, which means that fewer backlist mass market paperbacks get reprinted, which in turn reduces demand, and readers either order the e-book or move on to another author or series that is available.

So if you can’t find as many mass market paperbacks by your favorite author, all that just might be why.

Groupthink?

Human beings are social. Most of us form groups. The problem is that while some groups are helpful and socially beneficial, others are socially toxic, and when a socially toxic group becomes powerful enough, the greater society always suffers. Sometimes, this is immediately obvious, as demonstrated by the white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville. Other times, it’s hushed up, as I discovered, months after the fact, when the president of my college alma mater “disinvited” a conservative speaker. While I scarcely agree with the views of the speaker, I don’t believe in disinviting speakers whose views don’t match those of an institution.

At the same time, I also don’t believe in violent demonstrations. No matter what the aggrieved partisans who feel disenfranchised say, violent demonstrations have no place in a democracy, particularly since they strengthen the opposition and weaken the cause of the demonstrators. Demonstrations, yes. Violence, no.

All of this, however, also obscures an understanding of a critical aspect of the problem, and that’s a failure to distinguish between perceived groups and real groups. Skin color and ethnicity don’t often, if ever, correspond to groups. Just look at Africa today, or Europe in the 1600s, or England in the Elizabethan era. Muslims in Afghanistan are killing other Muslims of the same ethnicity and skin color.

Groups almost always have an identity based on a belief of some sort, whether it’s a religious faith, a belief that members of the group are oppressed or otherwise disenfranchised, a sense of supremacy, or some mixture of beliefs.

Groups also have two basic goals/drives: first, to reinforce the identity of all group members as part of that group and, second, to become more powerful as a way of strengthening the group and its identify. These drives motivate all groups, from gangs and drug cartels to philanthropic organizations and political parties, even religious groups.

One of the ways groups strengthen group identity is by claiming some sort of superiority — moral, spiritual, physical, intellectual, cultural, or some combination thereof, but in the case of toxic groups that “superiority” is based on stigmatizing and minimizing non-group members. The “better” types of groups trade more on some form of superiority based on service, morals, cultural uplift, or another form of cultural elitism, rather than emphasizing the negatives of non-members.

But all groups trade on their group identity in some fashion, ranging from very slightly to the point that, in some groups, nothing matters to the group but the group.

Toxic groups are the problem, not ethnicity, skin color, wealth, poverty, degree of education, or so many other “indicators” that people so easily cite.

Language and Culture

In an article recently republished on Tor.com, the linguist David J. Peterson took dead aim the underlying premise of Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao. Vance postulated that language influences cultural behavior and that changing a culture’s language could change the culture. Peterson’s assessment was blunt: “The premise of this book is pure fantasy and has absolutely no grounding in linguistic science.”

In a less direct manner, he also mentions Suzette Hayden Elgin’s Native Tongue, noting that the language creation was “extraordinary,” but reiterates the idea that changing culture solely through changing language is “pure science fantasy”

Oh… really?

Peterson’s certainly not the only authority on linguistics, and his blanket statement is a bit suspect (as are most vast generalizations). While he has an M.A. in linguistics and has created a number of languages, Suzette Haden Elgin had a Ph.D. in linguistics and was a professor of linguistics at San Diego State University for a number of years, and also created at least one complete artificial language. She apparently didn’t seem to think that the use of language to change culture was infeasible or pure science fantasy. And for years, she taught people how to use language more effectively. Peterson seems either totally unaware of this, or chooses to ignore it, neither of which is exactly praiseworthy or honest.

Also, from a logical point of view, one can argue that language has no impact on culture or that it has some impact. I don’t see how any rational individual can claim that language doesn’t have an impact on human behavior, and anything that affects human behavior affects culture. It seems to me that the question of impact is only one of degree.

To be fair, Peterson makes the argument that changing a language alone can’t change culture. But that’s a straw man argument, an all or nothing argument. No single factor will by itself change society. Society is influenced by a myriad of factors, and the use of language is definitely one of them. Witness the use of language by demagogues, notably by Adolph Hitler, but also by Donald Trump in the U.S. Presidential campaign of 2016.

I’d be the first to admit that both Vance and Elgin exaggerated the effect of language in their books, but authors often exaggerate to make a point. I’ve certainly been known to do so. What Peterson doesn’t seem to get is the fact that, while language by itself may not change an entire society in a generation, over time language and its patterns do reshape society, and that individuals in every generation use language to do just that, turning nouns into verbs and vice-versa and inventing new terms and usages, not just in reaction, either – and that’s not “pure science fantasy.”

Plot?

Starting with Aristotle, there’s been a great deal of controversy about what “plot” means. Aristotle called plot “the arrangement of incidents,” incorporating a beginning, middle, and an end. My dictionary defines plot as “the scheme of events or situations in a story.” The novelist E. M. Forster distinguished between story and plot, saying that a story was “a narrative of events in their time sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.” Later critics suggested that the purpose of a plot was to show the interplay of events and character, with those events requiring conflict.

Yet I’m finding that there is a certain small subset of readers who equate “plot” with “action,” especially physical action with lots of violence, threats of death, and a high body count. That is, for these readers, if there is not a cascade of continuing action, the story or novel has no plot or point.

I fully understand that some readers read primarily, if not solely, for excitement and physical action, and there are more than enough books that provide such action. Many of them, I would contend, actually are without any vestige of a plot, in the sense that those books contain minimal character development, and no emotional or intellectual conflict, aspects of a novel that most readers and scholars would consider as necessary elements of plot. I certainly do.

A series of high energy actions isn’t necessarily a plot. The big-bang creation of the universe was violent and high energy, but it has no plot. For that matter, the Biblical take on creation is only a series of events, with neither character nor conflict [after the serpent and Cain and Abel, things change].

This also brings up a subsidiary but vital point. The lack of violent action doesn’t necessarily mean the lack of conflict, or for that matter, the lack of tension. Hitchcock’s acclaimed picture Vertigo contains no actual scenes of violence, only one apparent suicide, and an accidental death, yet the tension builds throughout, and it can hardly be called plotless.

In the end action doesn’t equal plot, and a well-plotted and tense story may contain little physical action or violence.

Writing for Hire?

Over the years, fans and even other writers have suggested ideas that might fit in my series, and I’ve always nodded politely and said kind words, but I’ve never taken up any of those ideas. Nor have I ever been approached for or pursued doing “work for hire,” such as Star Wars novels or the like. Then the other day, a long-time reader emailed me and offered an idea, declaring he wasn’t interested in anything, no royalties, no acknowledgments… nothing, and I had to think about the matter more deeply before I could answer him.

It’s not as simple as rejecting, subconsciously or consciously, other people’s ideas. For years, I was a successful consultant, developing, packaging, and presenting their case to clients or to the government. I had absolutely no problem in taking ideas from anywhere and using them. To this day, when I’m dealing with technical presentations or commentary on the website, I still have no problem in taking or expanding on other’s insights, especially those of my wife.

But with novels… it’s different. But why?

That was when I realized something that I’d known all along, but never really verbalized. I don’t tell stories nearly so well when I don’t come up with the ideas – even in my own “universes.” Part of this is because others simply don’t know my universes/worlds as well as I do. Especially in my fantasy series, but also in a series like the “Ghost” books, so much of that world lies in my mind and not on paper or in outlines that often ostensibly workable story ideas really won’t work and be true to that world or universe.

The other part lies, I believe, in how much of my creative process is subconscious. With all writers, I believe, a good part of the creation is subconscious, but from what I’ve observed, I tend to rely on the intuitive/subconscious feel of what I’m writing more than many writers. This is neither good nor bad. Different writers have different ways of creating. Some writers very successfully can cold-plot a novel, write it to that plot, and come up with an interesting and readable work. I can’t. Yes, I know the story arc before I start, and I know the character, and the main points, challenges, and the society and culture. But, for me, not only does the story have to hang together logically, but it has to feel right.

This also might explain why I’ve never been interested in writing something like a Star Wars book or a Dune novel… or anything created by someone else, however much I may have enjoyed those stories or those worlds. I simply can’t get into those worlds as deeply as I can into my own, nor, if I’m going to be honest, do I really wish to.

This also leads to another problem, one that my editors have usually been able to catch before it manifests itself on the page before a reader – that I know something so well and so intuitively about a world that I forget to make it clear to others, because in the end, the story has to feel right to them as well. That’s also why I suspect that what I write tends not to appeal as much to those readers who prize action and technology/magic in the extreme over character.

And all that is also why it would most likely be a very bad idea for me to try to write a novel in someone else’s universe.