Friday, July 15, 2005

TRADE PUBLISHERS TO SHORT FICTION: DROP DEAD

A number of interesting collections of science fiction and fantasy have appeared in recent months. Here is a list:


Greetings and Other Stories by Terry Bisson (Tachyon Publications)
I Live With You by Carol Emshwiller (Tachyon Publications)
Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link (Small Beer Press)
Mothers and Other Monsters by Maureen F. McHugh (Small Beer Press)
Thirteen Ways to Water and Other Stories by Bruce Holland Rogers (Wheatland Press)
Heart of Whitenesse by Howard Waldrop (Subterranean Press)

Notice something peculiar here?

(There are also collections by David Gerrold and Harry Turtledove, also from small presses.)

I have deliberately excluded from the list titles whose authors typically publish in small presses, such as The Emperor of Gondwanaland and Other Stories by Paul Di Filippo, and large omnibuses produced by small-press publishers who specialize in this, such as The Masque of Mañana by Robert Sheckley or the recent tenth volume of Theodore Sturgeon's complete works. The books listed above are all by writers who regularly publish with trade hardcover houses such as Tor, St. Martin's Press, Viking. All (or just about all) of them have published novels, and almost never with small presses. (Carol Emshwiller is publishing a novel just this summer, from Penguin/Viking.) Even Howard Waldrop, supposedly hard-core small press material, published his last collection with St. Martin's Press. None of them are new writers; all of them have won prizes, if you are impressed by that sort of thing.

No more. I looked for examples of collections published by trade SF publishers this year, and can see three examples: by Garth Nix, China Miéville, and Gene Wolfe. All are prolific and extremely successful novelists whose collections are being brought out by the houses that are busily bringing out their novels. Critically acclaimed novelists whose sales are more middling (there are some on the above list) are expected to take their collections elsewhere.

One could argue about counter-examples, which don't refute my thesis but complicate it, such as writers like Lucius Shepard who, despite critical acclaim, publish both novels and collections with small presses; or Golden Gryphon, which publishes lots of collections and is midway between a small and a trade publisher. (Its founder, James Turner, was very annoyed when I referred to it in print as a small publisher.) The trend, however, seems clear. A short fiction collection, unless it is by a distinctly successful novelist who is currently publishing novels, is unwelcome at all trade publishers. (And even one by a requisitely pop author, such as Gerrold or Turtledove, will not be touched if their audience looks to be one that doesn't read short fiction.)

Anthologies, both original and reprint, continue to be published by both hardcover (St. Martin's Press) and mass market (DAW) houses. With their variety of authors, they seem to be a more commercial proposition.

David G. Hartwell, an editor at Tor Books, writes (in his introduction to the Sheckley volume) that the present disparagement of writers of short SF is "a growing disaster and a betrayal of the history of SF achievement in the 20th century." He continues:

"Despite the efforts of NESFA Press and others, almost everybody is looking at novels as the measure of a writer's true quality. If this goes on without challenge, everone from Damon Knight to Harlan Ellison, from Lucius Shepard to Ted Chiang will end up as second rank, and not worthy of Grand Master awards no matter how fine their stories. And to put it bluntly, there are a disproportionate number of excellent short story writers in the SF tradition, but not a lot of first class novelists."

True enough -- and I have heard other Tor editors make the same lament -- but it's hard not to notice that Hartwell, who was Terry Bisson's editor for his entire career up until now, seems to have abandoned collections by "excellent short story writers," as have his colleagues.

It has always been the case that trade publishers wince at publishing collections, and often would publish one only if the author delivered a novel. But I do not believe that collections of literary merit have ever been so entirely abjured by trade publishers as now.

34 Comments:

Blogger Derryl Murphy said...

Ted Chiang's collection came out from Tor in 2002, but that certainly was an exception. And Cory Doctorow seemed like an easy choice, what with his built-in geek audience, but his collection came from a small press.

But this situation does open things up for the small presses, and it opens more spaces for authors as well. Hell, I never would have placed my own collection with a big house, great reviews or not.

Hartwell is of course just one man, and every year there are more restrictions put on what he and other editors can acquire.

D

10:16 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

I didn't try to sell my collection to a major house. When, years ago, there was discussions with a major house about a collection I really wasn't sure that was what I wanted. Small Beer was what I wanted and they have exceeded my expectations.

But I have no reason to believe that a major publishing house would have published a collection for me. I doubt they would have.

4:02 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

I dimly remember, from my time on the Other Side of the Fence, that short fiction collections by anyone, and I mean anyone other than God were an almost impossible sell--the sales force would essentially put their fingers in their ears and sing "La la la la la" when an editor tried to present a short fiction collection other than, say, a Year's Best--at least in the realm of genre fiction. This was, apparently, because that's what a good number of buyers at the chains (yes, the chains are evil, we all know this, but they are a fact of life) do when the sales force appear at their offices trying to sell short fiction collections.

It stinks, because good short SF was the way I got hooked on the genre. And there are some writers who shine more in short form than long.

5:59 PM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

Derryl, Ted Chiang's collection came out (as you noted) three years ago, and seems to be the last POW out of the tunnel. And Chiang is an exceptional case: his critical acclaim (entirely for short fiction) is unprecedented in the field's history. Chiang's eight published stories have won three Nebulas, a Hugo (six Hugo nominations), a Sturgeon, a World Fantasy Award nomination or two, and a small phalanx of lesser prizes, their total significantly exceeding his number of sales. Prizes of course are a deeply unreliable indicator of literary merit, but they're spot-on in Chiang's case, and in any event they are the sort of thing that can influence an editor. So for Chiang to be published by a trade publisher is not a generalizable phenomenon.

And as it happened, alas, Tor botched his collection, cutting corners in the manner of a genre publisher saving pennies on a standard product -- the cover is a bad piece of stock art from a familiar hack. Some (not all) of the details can be found at:

http://withboots.blogspot.com/2005_02_06_withboots_archive.html

I gather that the editor, who feels that he was doing the author and SF a big favor by bringing out Chiang's collection, has no plans to publish a volume of literary short SF again.

8:39 PM  
Blogger Derryl Murphy said...

I agree, Greg. I think Marusek might be the closest equivalent to Chiang, but certainly he doesn't have the awards. And yes, the cover was a disaster that couldn't have helped sales.

D

10:21 AM  
Blogger A.R.Yngve said...

Hypothesis: Salespeople look at a book and ask not
"Is it any good?", but:
"Does it have franchise potential?"

A collection of short stories is not perceived as "franchiseable".

A novel, with focus on a distinct protagonist (short SF stories tend to focus on ideas rather than character development), is easier for the public to instantly recognize and attach loyalty to (i.e. "brand loyalty" -- see Harry Potter(tm)).

At least, that's the salespeople's POV.
End of hypothesis.

Can salespeople be re-educated to understand the "commercial potential" of short fiction? Maybe...
Tell them, "Think of all the hit movies that were based on short stories by Philip K. Dick."
It's worth a try...

2:33 PM  
Blogger Colleen said...

I just finished reading a new collection from Caitlin Kiernan "To Charles Fort, With Love" that is coming out from Subterranean Press in September. My review will be up over at Bookslut in August. I thought the collection was fantastic and based on reading it I have already purchased two of Kiernan's novels. I love short stories, but then again I love Ray Bradbury, so I'm prejudiced in favor of the form. I think it's a great way to "meet" an author. I'm just glad the small presses are at least willing to keep the form alive.

3:59 PM  
Anonymous Garth Nix said...

Garth Nix here: I guess I have two perspectives to offer. As a former agent, I know short story collections are about as welcome at a publishing house as a royalty audit, and I could only ever sell one on the back of a novel and usually only for derisory advances, even if the author was otherwise much in demand.

As an author, I suspect the only reason HarperCollins (and Allen & Unwin in Australia) published ACROSS THE WALL was because of the novella 'Nicholas Sayre and The Creature in the Case' that links in with my trilogy, variously called either 'The Abhorsen Trilogy' or 'The Old Kingdom Trilogy' depending where you live. I doubt whether any publisher would have done just a story collection from me, the novella (written, or rather completed, to be a one-off standalone book for charity, World Book Day in the UK) posed the problem that it needed other material to be make up a decent-sized book, hence the story collection. I'm really pleased to see all these stories collected, but it's because of the novella.

The big trade publishers simply look at the sales figures, and generally the sales figures for collections are awful. The stories may be brilliant (I agree that much of the best in SF is in short fiction, as ever) but most readers (not us obviously) just don't buy the anthologies in sufficient numbers -- in any genre.

This is also why all those famous short story markets that F. Scott Fitzgerald et al wrote for don't exist or don't publish fiction any more. It has been suggested that TV killed the short story in popular magazines and maybe that's true.

Fortunately, the lack of mass sales does not deter the small and speciality presses, and if an anthology did really kick off from one of them, I expect that you might well find a trade publisher wanting to pick it up later as well -- as they do with novels.

8:49 PM  
Anonymous Sean Wallace said...

Greg, the original cover for Ted Chiang's collection probably helped it sell copies, actually. I saw no issue in their packaging and I would have pretty much would have done much the same. I'd take a stab and say that the editor probably wasn't as much as ashamed by the cover as much as Ted's behaviour. He cut his own throat, in that mess. So I have no sympathy, at all.

7:22 AM  
Anonymous TCO said...

AR,

If you are going to "reeducate the sales forces" you will need to cite an argument that is sales based. Something like examples showing that collections sell more than they think (if they really do...) or that there is some synergy with other efforts. Or at least an argument related to how they might be positioned to sell well (if you really have such an insight). But don't talk about movies from Dick stories. How does that motivate a bookseller? Try to think economically. The trade is.

7:14 AM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

I have been travelling (and was busy making preparations before that), so have been unable to check in here for a few weeks. Interesting comments on the post, here and elsewhere.

Gordon Van Gelder sent me e-mail pointing out that St. Martin's Press would not have been able to publish the Waldrop collection had it not already been published in an Australian edition, from which SMP was able to reproduce the design. Point noted, although I believe that SMP published another collection around the same time, by Damon Knight. My point being that SMP would not publish an SF collection today.

Jonathan Strahan comments at length in his blog, and it sounds as though he feels that I believe that there was once a era when collections were easy to publish. I certainly know that this isn't true, and thought my post had said as much. I could quote old remarks from the sixties by celebrated writers like Avram Davidson to the effect that one can often only publish a collection by piggybacking it (he didn't use that term) on a novel or two.

Since Garth Nix makes the same observation from his more recent days as an agent, I would suggest that this indicates that such practice -- very hard to sell a collection to a trade publisher, but sometimes workable if the author also sells them a novel contract -- was more or less the case for decades. I am suggesting that this has now taken a turn for the worse.

It's very fortunate, certainly, that small presses are as interested in good short fiction as they are. (They seem more interested in it than they were twenty years ago, when there was a vogue for "first" editions -- coming out just before the trade one -- of celebrated and presumably collectible authors.)

Both trends seem to me valid, despite the fact that individual datapoints (McHugh did not actually seek a trade publisher for her collection; Link has founded her own small press; Chiang's case is unusual) never fall neatly into any line.

(I cited Chiang's collection as an exception, noting that such exceptions now seem almost impossible except in circumstances as extraordinary as Chiang's. This point is not altered by discussion of the book's unfortunate production history, concerning which I seem to have a different take from Sean Wallace -- hi, Sean! -- so I won't go into that.)

If anyone can cite me a trade or mass market publisher of SF/Fantasy who does occasionally still publish short fiction collections, I would be delighted.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

I don't think that you think it was ever necessarily easy to sell a short story collection, but I do think you think it's a harder now. I'm just trying to work out whether I think that's the case, or whether it's always been this hard, it's just more obvious these days.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Margo Lanagan's Black Juice, after being published by a large press in Australia, was reprinted by HarperCollins in the US this year (YA division, I believe).

Regarding Ted Chiang's cover. Although it isn't to my taste, how do you know it wasn't commissioned? I've been aware of excellent work by Gregory Manchess from my OMNI days. I wouldn't call him a hack, unless you call any artist who produces work to order a hack.
Ellen Datlow

6:54 PM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

No, I don't think any artist who produces work on commission is a hack. But the Chiang cover is undistinguished hackwork, and if it isn't stock art (which Tor uses a fair amount of the time), it looks like it.

7:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The style is a throwback to an earlier era (60s?)-- I've seen the style on Boys and Girls Together by Goldman and several Ayn Rand titles that I read then or in the early 70s.

As I said, it's not to my taste at all but I wouldn't call it hackwork. I guess we'll have to agree to disagree.
Ellen

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