Madeleine Robins December 7th, 2007
Tom Doherty’s blog on the vanishing mass market paperback should be required reading for anyone who is serious about writing genre fiction (or fiction generally, or anything generally, actually). Disclaimer: Tom is the Publisher and President of Tor Books, and I was his assistant for nearly five years. Tom knows mass market publishing better than just about anyone, and more to the point, he is passionate about publishing and books. Not book-shaped salable widgets, not product, but books.
For years Tom has talked about the diminishment of the mass market in places like supermarkets and drug stores. We used to swap stories about the allure of the spinner racks. When I was a teenager and we’d moved out of New York City and into rural Massachusetts, the drug store was my life line to genre fiction. The local libraries didn’t have much by way of SF or fantasy–lots of historical fiction, Regencies, romances of every stripe, but SF and fantasy were still a sort of untouchable literary caste. But in the drugstore there were spinner racks, and every month I’d go (I got so I knew when the stock would be refreshed, and show up that afternoon) and pick up as many new paperbacks as my allowance would permit (in the days when books were fifty cents to a dollar and a quarter you could actually do that). I encountered Suzette Haden Elgin, Damon Knight, Philip K. Dick, Donald Barr, Robert Silverberg, Terry Carr’s wonderful Years’ Best anthologies, as well as Asimov and Heinlein and Herbert and other Usual Suspects. I found writers I would not necessarily notice today because of the sheer volume of SF and fantasy books that are out there. When there are four genre books a month on the racks it’s easier to buy all four; I didn’t worry about whether a book was my kind of SF because I was so happy to have any SF at all. I was forced by circumstance to read whatever there was, and I was the richer for it.
I love bookstores. I loved bookstores when I was a teenager but even then I bought differently at Barnes and Noble or B. Dalton than I did at the drugstore. I’d encounter a new writer at the drugstore, and after that seek that writer’s work at the bookstore. The books from the spinner racks were the doorway drug that led to the harder stuff. Nowadays when I buy a book it’s most likely on a recommendation from a friend, or it’s by a writer I already know, or something I’ve seen reviewed. What I don’t get too often is surprises, that great feeling of opening a book with no idea of what I’d get. Of course some of it was lousy, but a lot of it was at least entertaining, and some of it was really good.
How do you find new books? Do you get any surprises? I think Tom’s right, that the demise of the spinner rack has a lot of impact on my career, on the sorts of people who might once have picked up a book of mine from the spinner rack but now don’t get a chance to do so. There are other ways to get in touch with potential readers (this blog, after all, is one of them). But that surprise is rarer and rarer, and I, for one, don’t know how to replace it.