A short post a while back by Grumpy Old Bookman (good to see he's still blogging with some frequency)routed me to a fascinating and challenging article on the future of publishing. It's a speech, actually, by Michael Shatzkin of The IdeaLogical Company, delivered at the most recent Book Expo America.
I won't attempt to get into the details of his rather eloquent argument, but Shatzkin's main point is that although there are readers who read in a very broad fashion, most readers are obsessed with a particular genre or two. He argues that in the future, publishing will be more targeted toward various kinds of niches, and that general trade publishers will gradually morph into specialty publishers with more clearly identified markets.
As a colleague of mine is fond of saying, "Predictions are dangerous--especially about the future." (Originally said by Niels Bohr.) Still I think there might be something to Mr Shatzkin's forecast.
On my recent visit to London I meandered through the bookstores on Charing Cross Road just to look at MNW books on the shelves (since I'd never encountered them in the wild, so to speak). I found quite an assortment, but the ones I saw in virtually every store were Brian McGilloway's Borderlands, Matt Curran's The Secret War, and Jonathan Drapes' Never Admit to Beige; those were closely followed by Conor Corderoy's Dark Rain and Michael Stephen Fuchs' The Manuscript.
Four of the five novels I list there are 'genre' books, generally stashed away in Mystery/Suspense (Borderlands and The Manuscript) and Science Fiction/Fantasy (Secret War and Dark Rain). And, you know what? After checking into it, I've gathered anecdotal evidence from booksellers (in the US, at least) that they are more likely to let a genre book sit on the shelf in the expectation that it will sell; mainstream books by unknown authors tend to get returned much more quickly.
Mind you, I'm not saying these four aren't good books (and I've read all of them, by the way). I'm just suggesting that bookstores have already moved in the direction Shatzkin is suggesting, and that they have more confidence in the saleability of a book in a category than in general fiction. Shatzkin believes the niches will become even better defined in the future, partly owing to user communities on the web.
[n.b. And how do I explain the persistence of Never Admit to Beige? Yeah, I knew some wiseguy would bring that up. Well, it's a truly hilarious book, and it got a high-profile review, and, ummm, it's just one of those things, okay?]
John Fowles, one of my favorite writers, once said, "My ambition is to write one book in every imaginable genre." Fowles was rather successful using this approach, as is Jane Smiley today, but it's hard to get away with it unless your name is already a recognized brand on its own.
Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, and John Banville have all recently jumped the fence from their lit-fic pasture into the wide-open fields of genre (the first three in science fiction, and Banville in crime fiction). Does this represent an important artistic choice, or a cynical attempt to make some real money...or have they all harbored a secret desire to have some fun, a desire they can indulge now that they're safely famous?