Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Genre: The Beginning


I'll begin this discussion/explanation of genre and how a writer can use it and what a reader can do with an understanding of it -- with a personal annecdote.

There are two things I've learned about GENRE in my career that "changed everything" for me: a) it's origin and b) it's definition because of that origin.

Where did I learn these two vital things?

Believe it or not, reading Star Trek fanzines incessantly and obsessively -- and watching the field of media fanzine (on paper) publishing evolve right before my eyes. This is a 20 year phenomenon which has now shifted almost entirely to the Web.

The economics of fanzine paper-publishing are identical to the economics of Mass Market paperback publishing except that the fanzine publisher can't make a profit (i.e. must not sell at a profit material based on someone else's copyright).

Fanzine publishers doing TV show pastiche are using the "fair use" clause in the copyright contract and that applies only so long as they don't do it for profit.

That's a big difference, to be sure, but it highlights the origin and purpose of genre in stark relief.

Fanzine paper publishers must (and I mean must) break even or almost even when their 'zine has a distribution of about 1,000 copies. Nobody can afford to subsidize a 2,000 copy print run out of pocket indefinitely (unless they're Bill Gates!).

So they have to charge the cost of paper, printing (offset press printing or copying used to be even more expensive than today), postage, and office supplies such as envelopes, file folders, etc. But they can't charge for the writing. That, they give away, just as they do today online.

Immediately, this vast expense puts the fanzine publisher into "business" figuring costs against the probability of sales to cover those costs. To get the sales volume to cover costs, they start to think about content and pleasing their readers to get repeat business.

Unlike Mass Market publishers (of olde!) fanzine publishers would get LETTERS OF COMMENT (LoCs) lambasting them for including distasteful stories or poorly written or copyedited stories along with the "good" ones.

This reader feedback caused publishers to separate one type of story from another and publish them in separate 'zines with clear labels so readers would buy only what they wanted.

PRESTO! They re-invented genre in response to exactly the same market forces that Mass Market publishers respond to! Economics prevailed.

And in response to that genre invention, readers bought even more copies, guaranteed of a good read.

So fanzine publishers did more of it and the readers invented terms for each of the sub-genres.

Then came the backlash. Once in a while a publisher would include a story from another universe, or a cross-universe story (Star Trek/ Dr. Who, for example), in a 'zine, and little by little in response to reader feedback, publishers went to the "Gen 'zine" -- a general fanzine that could have stories from a long list of TV shows. Or even stories based on novel series such as Sime~Gen (Dr. Who/ Sime~Gen was invented this way.)

It's READERS who invented and named genre in defense of their pocketbooks.

It's publishers who responded by separating genre stories into separate publications and labeling them.

And exactly the same thing happened in the previous hundred years or so in Mass Market publishing. Reader pressure forced publishers to invent genre.

But throughout the decades, readers keep forcing Mass Market publishers to GUESS what they want, to guess the rules the readers want followed.

Hence the invention of the Western Romance, one of the first cross-genre innovations.

Now for the SECOND blinding insight into Genre that changes everything.

This is really more for writers than readers.

What is the core element that defines or distinguishes GENRE in the eyes of the publisher who could pay you money for your book?

Remember, this question first arose because someone asked on another blog how a writer who has an idea for a story selects what genre to write that story in. And here is the biggest piece of the answer to that question.

A Romance writer came to me with a werewolf story she (a well established professional) had been unable to sell. I read the draft she'd been submitting, and told her what to do using this insight into the definition of genre, and she sold the book and its sequel to an sf/f publisher.

Genre is defined in Mass Market publishing today not by what is included but by what is EXCLUDED from the work.

Note how I explained above that fanzine publishers got tons of letters (snailmail in those days) from readers offended by the inclusion of a story that included material they didn't like in a zine full of stories they did like. Fanzine publishers learned to EXCLUDE material of one type from a zine filled with material of another type.

And that's the origin of genre - "don't turn your readership off!"

But editors and Manhattan publishers look at it differently, especially since the advent of computerized tracking of sales.

Editors believe that if you include an element that doesn't belong in the genre (i.e. put a werewolf or vampire (horror genre) in a romance story) you exclude two readerships and can sell the book only to the portion of the two readerships that overlap. (think of the Venn diagram of two overlapping circles -- the greater part of the readership is excluded by the inclusion of "foreign" genre elements.

That's what they believe and they believe it (well, used to believe it) because of sales statistics generated by computers.

It is that belief on the part of editors and publishers that rigidified the genre structure and proved to be such an obstacle to those of us writing SF/Romance, Fantasy/Romance, SF-Fantasy, and so on.

For an editor, to publish books that fail in the marketplace is to lose a job. In judging whether to buy a Manuscript or not, the editor is using a very personal criterion -- will I lose my job over this? Better safe than sorry -- therefore genre is defined by what is excluded rather than by what is included.

A werewolf story that consists of one bedroom scene after another has the structure of a romance which (was at that time) EXCLUDED from SF/F imprints. A Romance that has the EXCLUDED horror element of a werewolf in it (no matter how handsome, gentle, kind, and tormented) was excluded from the Romance imprints.

So what happened? I told this romance writer to get the story out of the bedroom and narrate directly some of the action that took place offstage, get the woman involved, etc. She did and it sold -- but HER FANS (romance readers) went after that book. Publishers noticed the sales stats in the computers. New writers began to imitate her.

Now that wasn't the first time such a thing happened. A number of SF writers moonlight as Romance or Mystery writers and vice-versa. Authors write different genres under different names.

But now, as readers have demanded changes, publishers have begun to shift what has to be excluded in order to qualify as this or that genre.

The changes are enabled by the Web and forums and Lists and newsgroups. Publishers are getting feedback now the way fanzine publishers used to - fast, and direct.

The change in readers habits is forcing changes in publishing. I believe I alerted you to the meltdown in the distribution sector a couple weeks ago. Yet another large distributor went into Chapter 11.

This last week, several publishing announcements show us the counter moves in publishing.

Here is a headline from the Wall Street Journal (subscribers only get the article).

Publisher Perseus to Buy RivalAs Book-Industry Deals Pick UpBy JEFFREY A. TRACHTENBERGJanuary 11, 2007; Page C3

In a move that quickens the pace of consolidation in the troubled book publishing industry, Perseus Books Group, an independent publisher owned by Washington private-equity firm Perseus LLC, has signed a letter of intent to acquire rival Avalon Publishing Group Inc.


Here's the Perseus article free online from another source (if it turns up in 2 or more places, it's important). This is from Canton OH.



And here's one on HarperCollins in a deal with LibreDigital to create a services company to help paper publishers produce and market digital books (i.e. e-books, downloadable books).


This is PUBLISHING's response to the Distributor meltdown. Does anyone need a detailed explanation of what this does to a writer's existing contracts with a publisher?

Now these changes in publishing aren't just due to changes in readers' tastes in genre formulae.

There are a number of forces converging on publishers and distributors and retailers such as Barnes & Noble which is closing stores because this last Christmas season didn't keep it afloat.

But it is these economic shifts that are leaving publishers willing to explore the potentials of cross-genre -- or INCLUSION of foreign elements in a genre book.

So ask your questions and I'll answer here next week. What else do you need to know about genre?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:28 PM EST

    Wow! What a valuable history lesson! Thanks!