Book-related thoughts

by Sunita

This is a grab-bag post of things I’ve been mulling over.

Goldsmith Prize: My favorite fiction prize was awarded to a very deserving book. Yes, Lucy Ellmann won for Ducks, Newburyport. There were other novels that I would have been happy to see win, e.g. Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything, but Ellman’s work is such an amazing accomplishment. I’ve only read 50 of the 1000+ pages so far but even that short section made it clear to me that something important was going on. This doesn’t change my general attitude to prizes, but I’m very glad that both Ellmann and her publisher, Galley Beggar, will reap the financial rewards that come with a major prize.

Also, reading Ellmann’s interviews as she did her Booker publicity tour has been a hoot. She is completely unapologetic about her dedication to Literature with a capital L and to her belief (one I share) that too many men fail to take women’s work seriously. A man writing a 1000-page book about whatever is brilliant. A woman writing a 1000-page book about a middle-aged married woman in suburban Ohio who bakes pies and thinks about the world around her is doing something weird and unnecessary. Some of the more prize-obsessed readers I follow online were distressed by her answers to questions. She was insufficiently respectful of readers, etc. My reaction: You go, Lucy. You write what you want and you treat the publicity tour crap however you want. It deserves very little respect, frankly, and if writers of literary fiction can’t write what they want and expect readers to come to them, we are truly doomed as a civilization. Which we probably are anyway.

Jeannie Lin has a new book out! It’s a collection of short stories set in the same world as the Gunpowder Alchemy series. It’s her first publication in quite some time, and she made the difficult decision to keep the ebook off Amazon. Lin talks about it at AAR and more extensively at her blog (buy links are at the bottom of her post). This is a major instance of putting your money where your mouth is, given how thoroughly Amazon dominates the book market, especially in the US. Kudos to AAR for hosting her explanation, although of course they don’t miss the opportunity to point out that they make all their money from Amazon (as most blogs with referral links do) and will continue to keep that relationship. And of course there’s that one commenter who spends many, many words explaining how important and wonderful Amazon is for self-published authors. Great place to make that pitch, author-person.

But that shouldn’t take away from what Lin is doing and I’ve already bought her book on Kobo, which is my main ebook platform. I’ve moved away from Amazon almost completely for ebooks, and now that TheH has a Kobo he has too. We gave up Amazon Prime this fall, after using it from the time it was introduced, and so far we haven’t seen much of a difference. A couple of books I ordered took a few days longer to arrive, but planning ahead is rarely that much of a handicap for me, and we don’t order groceries or other everyday stuff from Amazon. I like Kobo readers better than Kindles and Kobo price matches so that’s not a big deal. And I use the library a lot, which I find much easier on Kobo that I did on the Kindle. For TV and movie streaming we use library subscriptions to Hoopla and Kanopy (the latter has the Criterion Collection, which is wonderful), and we can always buy movies on Amazon without Prime when we want to. I’d rather read a book than watch most TV series anyway, so it hasn’t been a sacrifice. It’s been years since I was competent to talk about the New New TV Thing and I haven’t missed it. 😉

The Fandomization of Everything Continues. Exhibit 1: A YA author who used to write well-received original-fiction books published (through a major press) a Harry Potter fanfiction book in 2015 and everyone thought it was great. That book was a followup to an original-fiction novel in which the main character wrote fanfic. Apparently readers clamored for the fanfic itself, so voilà, she wrote it up. Now she’s written a sequel to the fanfic book, which is of course also fanfic. For reasons I haven’t bothered to investigate the titles of both are phrases from the biggest hit by a mediocre 1970s classic-rock band. Apparently even young people today are forced to relive the 1970s by Boomers and Gen-Xers. But more to the point, why write original work when you can tap into an already existing fanbase, one of the biggest around? It’s a win-win for everyone, right? Vox certainly thought so:

In some ways, Carry On didn’t do anything that really good fanfiction hasn’t done a thousand times before it, except change a few names and details and get published as a conventional book instead of online at Archive of Our Own.

But in other ways, just the fact that Carry On was published as a conventional book and not a fic gave it a unique power. Reading Carry On feels like watching fanfiction acquire the heft and force of canon before your very eyes.

It feels like watching fanfiction acquire the financial heft and force of canon before my very eyes. Commodification, it’s the greatest.

Exhibit 2: A popular m/m author is publishing a novel with a Big 5 publisher and it has an ebook list price of $13.99. Yes, you read that correctly. A niche writer in a niche subgenre is expected to be able to sell their novel at trade pub, general fiction prices. And they probably will. Never mind that much of the author’s previous work is derivative, bloated, and in dire need of both originality and editing in equal proportions. Given Big 5 publishing’s track record, who knows if they actually did any research to figure out whether they’ll make money. But they do know they have a built-in audience, so I guess that makes it worth the throw of the dice.

Macmillan v. Libraries. Macmillan has pulled all its new releases out of Overdrive for the first 8 weeks in order to maximize the number of readers who will purchase ebooks rather than wait for a library copy to become available. Macmillan CEO John Sargent mumbled some words to support/defend this decision but provided no evidence worthy of the name to back it up. He clearly has no idea how many readers are used to waiting more than 8 weeks for a new book in Overdrive to become available. Or, more likely, he doesn’t care. He just hates ebooks and libraries.

I’m all for the collective action efforts, but I doubt they will have much effect, because (a) boycotts and petitions mostly don’t, and (b) if Sargent were attuned to consumer behavior he wouldn’t have done this. There are a lot of Macmillan imprints, some of which publish books I want to read, but my TBR list is long and my library hold and wish lists are full even without Macmillan. Mostly I feel bad for librarians who have to deal with questions about where the books are, on top of everything else they have to deal with these days. As usual, SuperWendy has a great post on this.

I am looking forward to the holidays and lots of reading time.