Alisa on the challenges small and non-mainstream publishers face

Posted By on Oct 21, 2013 | 0 comments


Over the last few weeks, in the lead up to the launch of our Kaleidoscope campaign, I’ve also had my head buried in my PhD candidacy proposal. I wanted to write a bit about some of the problems, trends, and questions I’ve been exploring for that proposal. Over the next three years, I plan to study the potential for politics in publishing. It’s something I have a deep personal interest in as a small publisher whose books are not mainstream.

Click here to back Kaleidoscope on Pozible

Click here to back Kaleidoscope on Pozible

An important element of the economics of publishing is the idea of censorship – not the kind of censorship that happens through book banning or prosecution for “inappropriate material” but the more invasive and subtle censorship that happens at book acquisition and sales. The perpetuation of the mythology of what kind of books sell or don’t sell.

I remember when we were doing the cover work for one of our first collections – A Book of Endings by Deborah Biancotti – we fought the mythology on two fronts, the first being single author collections by women don’t sell (I haven’t actually heard this said in the last few years but it was definitely still being bandied about when we were making this book in 2008/09) and books with green covers don’t sell. This book, one I am still extremely proud of, and which earned a shortlisting for the Crawford Award, stands out as an important teaching moment for me. It was the first book I published that broke even and earned itself a (very) small profit. Despite having both a green cover and being a single author collection by a woman. And it cemented something really important for me – that many of the myths about the economics of publishing need to be challenged and tested.

Another popular myth is that “science fiction by women doesn’t sell”. This isn’t a new myth, Joanna Russ (among others) explored it in great detail in several of her discussions of the field back in the 70s and 80s. But no matter how much it’s debunked, the preconception doesn’t seem to shift. Take for example Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice – a hard SF military novel which I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about all over the place. It’s a book I had intended to buy based on the buzz and because, and this might be shocking since I am a woman and all, I quite enjoy hard military SF. Yeah I know. Weird. In this blog post, Cheryl Morgan illustrates just how it is that hard military SF by women doesn’t sell. It turns out, it’s pretty difficult to make sales when your book doesn’t get stocked.  Not that there is anything wrong with book buyers basing their stock on “how good it is and whether they think it will sell”. But when those judgments are made without reading said book, one might ask, on what basis do you decide “how good this book is”? When a big publishing house can’t get a book by a woman to be stocked in a big bookstore, how likely are they to take on more books in a similar vein, where similar vein means “science fiction written by a woman”?

And so it comes to pass that certain books, written by women, indeed don’t sell.

The unfortunate thing is that this then flows on to the further step of self-censorship. Writers stop writing material and content that they don’t think they can sell. After all, this is a business, and writers want to get paid and build a career for themselves and both of those things require selling what they write to a publisher and then book sales in bookstores. If your book doesn’t sell in enough quantity in the bookstores, it’s harder to sell your next manuscript. In this case, either women take on a male pseudonym or they move on and write in a more “female friendly” genre. In both instances, the myth that science fiction by women doesn’t sell gets perpetuated. I use “women” as the example here because it is a differential that is easy to quantify and track, but writers identifying as QUILTBAG, neurodiverse, disabled or of colour face the same difficulties. And to me, what is even worse than perpetuating the belief that this kind of work doesn’t sell, is that this fiction stops getting written at all.

As the book industry has become more corporatised, it’s become more homogenised and focused on the bestseller, which is the best bang for the dollar.  This involves appealing to a mainstream audience. At the same time, we’ve seen the rise and fall of the monolith big bookstore, the rise of online booksellers and increasingly conservative acquisitions departments in the remaining big publishing houses.

Where in this picture does diverse fiction, written for and by those who sit outside big business’s profile of the average, mainstream reader, fit? And in this atmosphere, can it survive at all?

It is surely a given that there is an important place and role in for diverse fiction. And even more so that there is a readership that craves it. More than that, it’s vital that this fiction be published as a part of the intricate fabric that is the storytelling of who we are, and who we want to be, at this point in time. The question then becomes who will publish it and who will sell it.

A role (and opportunity) for small presses is to publish work that sits outside of “mainstream publishing” and to champion works that large corporations don’t consider. At Twelfth Planet Press we look to publish fresh, original, well-written work that seeks to interrogate, commentate, inspire or provoke thought. We look to provide opportunities and to advocate for fiction that might otherwise not be written or find a home and audience.

It’s with this purpose that we  are currently fundraising to make Kaleidoscope, an anthology of diverse YA fantasy fiction.  We have just 9 days left to fund this project which we are hoping to fill with a diverse array of stories representing a wide variety of underrepresented voices.

To pledge funds to the Kaleidoscope Pozible campaign, visit the Pozible site at http://www.pozible.com/project/34920.