It’s the Golden Age of Fiction

Enjoy choosing from millions of books publishers didn’t want you to read

Your Kindle or other e-reader holds all these books, and more

you follow the news about publishing, self-publishing and fiction writing, you know it’s all bad.

The sky is falling.

Certainly for writers. Their incomes are plummeting according to every newspaper article about writers. Even the A-list bestsellers are complaining. It’s never been so bad since Gutenberg invented the printing press.

And, by implication, for readers.

After all, what will we read when writers have all been forced to take jobs at Walmart and McDonald’s just to survive?

All the major publishers are going out of business.

Bookstores are going under. Independents were driven out of business by the chain stores. Borders shut down in 2011, and Barnes & Noble — at least its physical retail stores — seems headed for the same fate.

Soon we’ll either refuse to buy any book priced higher than 99 cents, or Amazon will force us to take out a second mortgage to pay for the latest bestseller.

The Predictions Haven’t Been so Dire Since Barnes & Noble and Borders Began Putting Small Bookstores Out of Business

Besides, soon everybody will forget how to read, and will only watch streaming movies and videos on YouTube.

I’ll address all this from a writer’s point of view soon, but right now I’m beginning with readers.

Actually, we — because I’m a fanatic reader as well as a writer.

So should you boycott the wicked Amazon, as some authors think you should?

And the Big 5 publishers even though Amazon is keeping them in business by selling more paperbound and ebooks than anybody else.

Is it true you’ll soon have to choose between paying $50 to read a competently written bestseller or 99 cents for a self-published piece of crud?

No, Chicken Little, the sky is NOT falling.

Just the opposite!

We’re On the Verge of a Golden Era of Fiction Reading

One that may never end (though with cyclical ups and downs).

I see the demand for meaningful stories ever-growing into the future.

Here’s why:

1. Kindle, Nook, Kobo and other e-readers are making reading fun again for many readers. And more physically convenient.

The story is king.

A book is just the vehicle to bring the words to your attention, so you can read them one by one.

For 500 years, that meant printed books.

But now Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and other ereaders can bring the words to you on an electronic screen.

Do the words or their impact change just because they’re presented electronically? Of course not.

I realize Stephen King has gone on record as saying only the paper books are “real,” although, paradoxically, he was an ebook pioneer. I disagree.

All books are “real.” And novels are good or bad depending on the words, not the medium.

Publish a silly novel on deluxe rag paper and bind it in gold embossed leather, and it’s still a silly novel.

I have enjoyed owning deluxe books from Karl Edward Wagner’s Carcosa Press and Arkham House. However, I bought them for the stories, not the bibliographic value, though that was high.

I’m used to reading ordinary, small paperback books, because that’s mainly what I grew up on.

But they’re getting rarer, and not by accident.

The Book Distribution System that Helped Us Older Readers is, Sadly, Long Dead

When I was a child, I browsed new paperback books at Wardein’s Pharmacy and the newsstand across State Street on my way home from McKinley Elementary School.

Bookstores were for the elites in big cities. My hometown of Alton Illinois didn’t have an actual bookstore selling newly released books until many years after I no longer lived there, and those mall stores are now gone. (It did have a used bookstore.)

Yet, as a child, I did just fine by keeping my eyes on the inventory of drugstores and newsstands.

I found Edgar Rice Burroughs, both the Ballantine Tarzan and Mars books with Richard Powers covers, and the others from Ace with the Frank Frazetta covers.

I found the Conan collections published by Lancer.

I bought all the Ace Science Fiction Special edited by Terry Carr.

And all the Ballantine Adult Fantasy books allegedly edited by Lin Carter.

Magazines? I got F&SF through a mail subscription. But I always found GALAXY, IF, WORLDS OF TOMORROW, AMAZING, and FANTASTIC. Also the mainly reprint zines MAGAZINE OF HORROR and STARTLING MYSTERY STORIES. SMS, besides reprinting lots of Jules de Grandin stories by Seabury Quinn, published the first two stories by Stephen King.

Now, try to even find a newsstand. Do any still exist anywhere?

Supermarkets and the big pharmacy stories do still stock paperbacks, but they focus on the bestsellers.

That’s fine for James Patterson.

I still read paperback books, because I can good ones cheap from a local used book store. But I don’t keep them.

I rarely buy them new, because I look for a specific title and author, and I know the supermarket or the airport won’t have it in stock. Only the current bestsellers (I read many of those authors, but I’m behind.)

What do young science fiction, fantasy and horror fans today do?

Go online, of course.

And why pay for postage and wait for delivery?

The major publishers are abandoning the lowly paperback. They want us all to buy hardcovers.

I don’t know about you, but to me, they’re too expensive. So are the trade edition paperbacks.

And both of those are too big.

Ever since I was a kid in school, I’ve carried books around with me to read during study hall, waiting for the bus, waiting in a doctor’s office, while eating lunch and so on.

Try that with your typical hardcover.

Granted, even an ordinary paperback edition of a Tom Clancy novel is also ungainly and hard on the wrists, but still a lot easier than the hardcover.

So I’ve preferred paperbacks for the sheer ease of carrying them around. Now, as mentioned, the publishers are abandoning the midlist paperback. I’ve even heard of New York Times bestsellers having only hardcover editions.

Excuuuuuuuuse me?

That’s Elitist New York Publishers Thumbing Their Nose at Ordinary Readers

So, if you can’t afford to pay several hundreds of dollars a month for your books, they don’t want you.

And they wonder why self-published ebooks for 99 cents and $2.99 are so popular.

And for some people, reading a big, heavy hardcover edition is difficult or even impossible. Elderly people with arthritis in their wrists and hands, for example. I’ve heard of them praising the Kindle et al as helping them read more.

I will admit, when it comes to reading while eating lunch, a paperback is easier than a Kindle. Since I don’t plan to keep most paperbacks, I don’t mind if I spill mustard on their pages.

Seems to me, authors who write extra-long novels should be grateful e-readers are making those novels easier for readers to store and read.

And physical books have to be stored. They take up space.

I hate to think how much time out of my life I’ve spent sorting through books and magazines. Storing them into cardboard boxes. Lifting and re-arranging those boxes. And carrying them to new addresses on moving day.

I’ve now got boxes of books on my Kindle. Funny, and it doesn’t weigh any heavier than when it was empty.

And when I choose, I can add boxes more.

Ebooks are Great Equalizers

I can shop online, then have Amazon deliver it wirelessly, and I’ve got it in a few minutes — no matter where I am.

A few years ago, Stephen King told fans who wanted to read his latest, to “get on the stick” and buy it at a bookstore.

I don’t know about Maine, but out here in the Midwest, the nearest bookstore could be a hundred miles away.

Amazon enables everybody living out in the sticks (people Mr. King has often written about) to buy books just as though we lived in Manhattan.

I haven’t tried to buy directly from my Kindle, because I prefer browsing through reviews on the larger screen of my laptop, but I know it’s possible. My seven-year-old niece bought a book just by playing around with my Kindle.

2. Big publishing houses are going the way of dinosaurs.

This has so many positive results, it’s hard to detail them all.

Thanks to epublishing and Print On Demand services, writers can now self-publish their books themselves.

A. One thing that means for you is, you now have the option to read many works that would not otherwise be available to you.

The stories are endless. Nine editors rejected the first Harry Potter book. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole was rejected so many times the author committed suicide. His mother got it published posthumously, and it won the Pulitzer prize. (Must have really deserved all those rejections, though, right?)

The official party line is this only happens now, because publishers have had to cut back on staff.

Yet Gone With the Wind was rejected something like thirty-six times. Once it was published, it sold a few copies, though. And not only became a classic movie, but won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

And that was back in the “good old days” when every editor was Maxwell Perkins working to encourage talent by editing rough drafts.

Sure, at least 99% of the unsolicited slush manuscripts sent to editors and agents are crud. But how many great books have we lost because the author grew too discouraged to submit to the next editor?

And, these days, with only a few corporations controlling publishing companies, there are a lot fewer editors buying. At least for major companies. There are still quite a few small publishing companies, but they don’t have the resources to launch a book to the bestseller list.

The truth is, books are rejected by publishing houses for many reasons that have nothing to do with their intrinsic quality.

Books you might enjoy reading.

A good novel may be too short. Once the publisher prices it to get their money back, consumers think there’s not enough quantity there.

A good novel may be too long. The more pages, the more paper the publisher must pay for, and the higher the price. A novel more expensive than others better be from a proven name. Readers don’t want to pay extra for an unknown author.

Novels that cross genre lines are frowned on. In the 1970s I wrote a near-future detective novel. (I won’t claim it’s a cross between Robert Heinlein and Raymond Chandler.) I was told by various editors they wouldn’t buy science fiction mystery stories. Never mind Isaac Asimov and others wrote them. I wasn’t Isaac Asimov.

Later I met Lou Stathis, the first reader for one house, at a science fiction convention. When we were introduced, he remembered my novel and told me he thought it was good enough to publish, but the higher-ups didn’t want to take the risk.

There are exceptions. By big name authors. If you think Doubleday in 1974 would have published The Stand by Stephen King instead of Carrie, you’re dreaming. Even in the early 1980s when King was super-hot, they heavily chopped The Stand down in size. He couldn’t get the full version published until he was too big to say no to.

Science fiction, fantasy and horror have traditionally been small genres with limited appeal. Publishers and editors in those fields were fans themselves, and understood this.

Even within the field itself, some writers have broader appeal than others. Robert Heinlein outsold H.P. Lovecraft.

Sure, starting in the 1960s, breakouts happened. Lord of the Rings. 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Exorcist.

But novels with more limited genre appeal relied on a dedicated audience of readers who bought almost everything.

As corporate entities took over book publishing, the bottom line instead of quality became king. Unusual, quirky imaginative fiction suffered. No matter that it was a work of genius. If it wouldn’t sell enough copies to make a profit, it was rejected.

Now, I have a B.S. degree in Accounting. I’m all in favor of a business making a profit.

Yet as a reader I also want to have the option to read those quirky, unusual books. Even if they sell only 9 other copies the entire year.

Now that it costs nothing or almost nothing (depends on what they do for the cover) for an author to upload a book to Kindle and the other edevices, a writer can go where their muse takes them and not go broke finding their audience.

If their audience is small, they may not get rich, but that’s another story.

At least you the reader can read those books.

B. Another problem with the major publishers is they want to “ration” their authors to one book a year.

Again, some biggies such as Stephen King, Nora Roberts and, especially, James Patterson, get away with breaking this rule.

But it’s a real limitation for almost everybody else.

Some writers create new series or write in different genres under pen names.

Others simply slow down.

Because, for most writers, one book a year, is not a big effort.

Not for a full-time writer. Writers who still have a day job do struggle.

Now, let’s say you love a certain writer.

Do you want to read only one book a year from them? Or one a month? Or every other month, whatever they can produce?

Thanks to self-publishing, you can.

C. You no longer have to wait a year or two after an author finishes a book, before you read it.

Unless a book has topical significance (you fellow senior citizens may remember the Pentagon Papers being published in three days), it takes at least a year from manuscript submission to actual publication, by traditional publishing houses. I bet the average is at least eighteen months.

Today’s big release has been a closed issue to the author for a year and a half, perhaps more.

This usually doesn’t affect your reading of it (though it could, especially for thrillers about political events that tomorrow’s headlines could change).

However, just as you want to read as many great novels as your favorite writer can produce, don’t you want them right away?

Self-publishing to e-devices can take only a few days.

It does depend some on the author’s skills, and how much work they outsource.

Most writers should hire an editor, and that can take time. Myself, I don’t feel my manuscript is “done” until I’m satisfied it’s as perfect as I can get it.

At that point, it’s mainly a matter of the cover art.

Some writers hire “designers” for the inside of their books. I don’t know their turnaround times. I don’t know why they spend that money. I can format a novel for Kindle in just an hour or so. It’s not hard at all. A little boring, but not hard.

Designing a Print on Demand book that’s going to be printed is a different story. I still do it myself, but it’s maddening.

I do my own short story covers, but hire out novel covers.

I’ve hired artists/designers that took only a few days or a week. One told me it’d take him four to five weeks to come up with the idea, and then he bailed out on me entirely.

But as long as I’m sure of my book’s title, I can order the cover art long before I finish writing the novel.

A self-publisher also has to write a good description of their novel, and some are pretty lame.

So once I’ve formatted a Kindle file, received the cover art, and written the description, it just takes ten minutes to upload it all to Kindle. Readers can download it about twenty-four hours later.

Once it’s uploaded to Smashwords, it’s available immediately on the Smashwords site. It does take weeks to get to iTunes, Kobo, Diesel, Barnes & Noble and so on.

But it’s a hundred times faster than traditional publishing.

Oh yes, some publishers, in a gesture of contempt for their customers who choose to use e-readers, withhold the electronic edition until months after the hardcover has been released.

There is no practical reason for that. It’s obviously done to force loyal fans to buy the hardcover.

D. You can read books in genres traditional publishers no longer wish to service.

Can you believe westerns used to be one of the biggest categories of popular fiction? Strange, but true.

Try selling a western novel now to a traditional publisher. Hah! Wouldn’t matter if you’re the reincarnation of Zane Gray, Max Brand and Louis L’Amour combined. They’d laugh you back to the ranch.

So fans of westerns used to have to hunt down moldy old paperbacks, and forget about reading brand new novels in the genre.

Not anymore.

E. You can read genres you’re embarrassed to ask for at the bookstore.

Thanks to the tremendous success of 50 Shades of Gray, it’s now widely known one of the biggest genres on the Kindle (I’m not so sure of other distributors.) is erotica.

Erotica also appears to be the favorite genre authors choose to interbreed — err, cross — with.

That is, there are now erotic romances (where Harlequin used to pull the shades closed, they keep writing), erotic suspense, erotic mysteries, erotic fantasy, erotic horror (Midnight), erotic science fiction, and so on.

Writers are no longer limited by the reluctance of traditional publishers to bring out such material.

Therefore, readers now have the choice to read a lot more of it.

By now, you’re probably bursting to tell me all about the tens of billions of incompetent, poopie books writers are uploading to ereaders.

It’s true, they are.

I have a number of responses to that.

a. Traditional publishers have not always done a great job of separating the wheat from the chaff. I’ve read really lousy books published by the majors.

And I don’t mean lousy in that I don’t like that kind of book, but incompetently written and plotted.

b. Ways to separate the good from the bad will always be there, and will continue to evolve.

After all, prior to e-readers, you still had a way to decide which of the thousands of hardcover and paperback novels published in a given year you wanted to buy and read.

Online reviews, blog reviews, Goodreads, established reputations, and so on.

c. Writers don’t like to stress this, but if you buy a book from Kindle and are dissatisfied, you have seven days to request a refund.

I’m not sure about the policies of other distributors, but I suspect all have some kind of refund policy.

d. People disagree on the meaning of bad, even incompetent.

I hate to name names, but I have read books by highly successful self-published authors which, in my always humble opinion, sucked. I could see why they were rejected by publishing houses and agents. I’d have sent them the standard notice too.

Yet, self-published, they’re selling. Some, big-time. As in more money than I’ve ever made in my life.

3. As epublishing and self-publishing continue to grow, internationalization will increase your choices.

Amazon authors can now choose to make their books available in France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. They’re automatically available in India, the second largest English speaking market in the world.

Right now my works will only be bought by Germans who read English.

But what’s to stop me from having my books translated into German?

There’s now a service which translates books into many common language.

English writers can now sell translated-to-German books in Germany.

And German writers can now sell translated-to-English books in the United States.

Making their works available for the first time to ordinary readers in the English-speaking world.

For many years, about the only foreign works available in U.S. bookstores were “Literary” with a capital “L” or leftwing. Nothing against Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but perhaps some Columbian authors might be writing terrific adventure or horror stories?

4. English is increasing in use around the world.

All right, that’s a benefit only to English readers, but everybody reading this book can read English.

Go to Tokyo’s Narita Airport. The signs are in Japanese — and English. That’s normal around the world.

Sure, a lot of online business and recreation within countries takes place in the native language.

But when it comes to the rest of the world, English is the language the other person most likely uses.

English is one of the official languages of India. Sure, Hindi is common there, but so are many others. Yet all Indians are educated in English. So when a Hindi speaker does business with a Tamil speaker, chances are good they both use English.

Chinese is two written languages and around twenty-two spoken languages. When a Chinese from one part of the country needs to speak with someone from another part, they may use English.

Even Thailand, though never colonized by England or the U.S., teaches English to its school children.

If you’re a Japanese author and you want to make your novel available to non-Japanese readers, and can only afford one translation, English would be your best bet.

5. Self-publishing through new technologies is enabling many writers to survive as writers, even if they aren’t bestsellers. This allows them to write more novels for you.

James Michener once wrote that in America a writer can make a fortune, but not a living.

He meant you could write some bestsellers, as he did, perhaps have some of them turned into movies, and get rich. I’m sure Michener made plenty of dough.

But it was tough to make a just plain, ordinary and dependable middle-class income.

Not impossible. Some authors have done well writing for pulp magazines and original paperbacks. Some find their way to Hollywood and earn a better than average income that may not be wealth, but it’s close enough.

Self-publishing is changing that.

Writers who find an audience, and write lots of stories and novels, are making a living. Sometimes it’s a lower middle class income, but it beats working for McDonald’s.

And it can grow, the more you write and promote.

And some writers are making five figures a month.

Some are even into six figures a month.

I believe these numbers are just going to grow in the years to come. Assuming the writer is good enough, finds an audience, keeps on producing new books, and so on.

Writers who can live on epublishing checks can keep on writing. They’re not as stressed out as those traditionally published writers depending on advances that, according to the news, are going downhill. Or on royalty checks that come only every six months. And are likely inaccurate.

And probably won’t come at all, because most novels don’t earn out their advances.

In the eyes of the establishment book industry, such books are losers. They are not kept in print, so if you want to buy it six months later, you probably won’t find it. Not at a retail bookstore.

And the writer is unofficially ‘banned.’ It’s nothing criminal. That just means their next novel will be rejected because this one didn’t earn out its advance. It didn’t make enough money.

So forget him or her. Even if their next novel is ten times as good.

There’s no telling how many writers have sold a few novels to the traditional publishers, thought they had it made, but couldn’t make enough sales to get their third of fourth books accepted, and quit.

With self-publishing, a writer doesn’t have to be successful overnight. Book files sit on servers until a reader wants their copy.

And no editor rejects their next novel because the last one didn’t sell out during the four-week ‘window’ it was available (though not promoted) in bookstores.

6. In time, more backlists will become available.

Ever found an author you really enjoyed and, after reading one novel of theirs, wanted to grab everything they’ve ever written?

Used to be you could go to a retail bookstore and buy a lot of them, if not all. Not anymore.

A “backlist” is the books a writer published before the one they now have in print.

So if you go to the store to buy 11/22/63 by Stephen King and see several shelves of Carrie, Firestarter, The Shining, and so on, that’s his backlist.

Mr. King’s backlist is kept available.

Every author who’s not on the ultra A-list?

Forget about it. Retail bookstores don’t want to waste their precious shelf space on “old” books. They’re too busy selling games and wrapping paper.

That is changing online, though, as publishers begin to realize the value of their inventories.

And so will writers and their heirs.

Are you a fan of Michael Crichton? I am.

And I just discovered while he was a medical student, he wrote a number of hardboiled mysteries under the pen name John Lange.

I’d like to read them. But they’re not on Kindle.

I’d like to think that if he hadn’t died, he’d want to make them available for his fans to read. Hopefully his literary executor will make that happen.

As time goes by, writers will never let the books go “out of print,” because that’s a meaningless phrase when we’re discussing digital files stored on servers.

You can write mysteries under a pen name before your first bestseller under your own name, and keep making sales. And your heirs can collect until 70 years after your death (that’s when the copyright runs out, under current law).

7. We have fantastic access to older works.

I think I spent $2.99 each for the complete plays of William Shakespeare, and everything written by Charles Dickens and Mark Twain.

And that’s only because I bought organized collections.

If you just want to read individual titles, such as Moby Dick, most are free for the downloading.

I paid all of 99 cents for the complete 1001 Arabian Nights as translated by Sir Richard Burton. In the 1970s I had to buy it as a set of eighteen separate hardcover books.

In the United States, everything published before 1923 is considered public domain. People have been taking advantage of this for many years. When you bought a copy of Moby Dick to read for a college English course, you were just reimbursing the publisher for their paper and printing costs. You think they sent a royalty check to Herman Melville’s heirs? No way.

Now you can get a lot of free public domain books from The Gutenberg Project, but they’re not in an easy to read format.

The status of books and stories published from 1923 to 1964 is murky. Big names are definitely protected. You can’t download Hemingway or Faulkner for free.

But lots of that stuff is now public domain. Once the copyright databases are verified and accessible, a lot of great stuff from that time will become available.

Do you need to go out and buy a Kindle or some other ereading device?

I have to confess. I didn’t buy a Kindle until I planned to go to The Philippines, and knew I didn’t want to pay $30 shipping for every book I’d want to buy.

Yet, now that I have it, I’m impressed.

I do still read a lot of paperback editions of popular, relatively modern genre novels. They’re cheaper than the Kindle price set by the traditional publisher, and easier to read while eating lunch.

But for books I know I’ll never find locally, and especially for books I may wish to re-read or refer to in the future, I want them on my Kindle.

And I believe the smartest writers (such as myself) will make self-published novels available through Print On Demand platforms. So if you prefer paper, you’re still going to have many more choices than traditional publishers want to give you.

The upshot is, in the future you’re going to have many more novels available to enjoy.

Many of them written by yours truly. (Natch!)

The first version of this story was posted here.

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