Balance for my gorge, or Feeley on the story collection

Author and critic Gregory Feeley has written an interesting piece about trade publishers and short story collections. I don’t think it overstates his case to say that Feeley thinks trade publishers have never been as reluctant to publish what he describes as collections of literary merit than they are today. He states that ‘A short fiction collection, unless it is by a distinctly successful novelist who is currently publishing novels, is unwelcome at all trade publishers.’ While this is plainly something of an overstatement – how else would he explain something like HarperEos publishing an outstanding book like Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice – there is a lot of truth to what he says. Successful novelists like Garth Nix, China Mieville, Gene Wolfe, Patricia A. McKillip, Stephen Baxter and others appear to have little difficulty placing collections with trade publishers, but solid mid-list writers like Paul McAuley and Ian McDonald seem to have little choice but to turn to smaller presses, and writers with smaller audiences like Robert Reed or Howard Waldrop and those just starting out like Joe Hill or Mary Rickert, seem to have very little choice at all but to go to small presses if they want collections published.

Like any situation though, things are inevitably more complicated than they appear. First, not every writer wants his or her book to be published by a trade publisher. Maureen McHugh, whose Mothers and Other Monsters Feeley cites has said she didn’t try to place her collection with her trade publisher. Kelly Link, whose Magic for Beginners Feeley also mentions, was very successful essentially self-publishing her debut collection, and it seems probable she chose not to go to a trade publisher with her book. Another good example is Terry Pratchett’s Once More With Footnotes. In conversation, Pratchett mentioned to me that he’d chosen not to place the book with his trade publisher, rather than experienced any disinterest. I’d hazard a guess, and suggest this may be because collections do sell less (for whatever reason) and lower selling books tend to confuse chain bookstore ordering systems. Second, some books almost by their nature have smaller potential audiences, and are more appropriately handled by a smaller publisher. The kind of book I’m thinking of here is a collection of early stories by a major writer, or a small series of stories gathered in a single book. Orson Scott Card’s First Meetings is a good example. I know of several writers who have happily had a small press edition of a book produced because they’d like to see it exist, but don’t feel a large audience exists for it. And, third, some books tend to be more about a building a new audience for a writer, something smaller presses seem laudably more willing to do.

So, it’s not easy getting a collection published by a trade publisher, and not everyone wants to. But is this an inherently bad thing? Is being published by a trade publisher significantly better or different from being published by a small press publisher? The obvious answer would seem to be that a trade publisher is preferable. You’d imagine that a trade publisher would offer larger advances, more publicity, bigger print-runs and so on than a small press publisher might, but is this actually the case? It seems to me that there is little difference between trade and small press publishers when books are published in unlimited editions by presses like Golden Gryphon or Night Shade. These publishers typically produce books in editions that are not dissimilar to trade editions, sell for around the same price, have similar sized print runs, are distributed to the chain bookstores, and are as well or better produced physically than their trade cousins. They even, in some cases, pay comparable advances. A good example of this is Andy Duncan’s Beluthahatchie and Other Stories, which was widely available, received good press, and won awards. Interestingly, Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden said in an interview for the SFWA Bulletin that ” I don’t think we [Tor] could have done a better job with it and I don’t think we could have sold more copies, frankly, even assuming Andy Duncan had published three novels with Tor, and he’s not published any novels with anyone.” Much the same could be said of books like James Patrick Kelly’s Strange But Not A Stranger, or Kage Baker’s Mother Aegypt.

Would a trade publisher have done better? I’m not sure. Look at Howard Waldrop’s debut story collection. I don’t have the official figures, but my understanding is that when Doubleday published the book in 1986 they printed less than two thousand copies and paid a commensurate advance. It would have made it into most libraries because Doubleday sold many of their titles into libraries at the time, and would have made some chain bookstores, but it quickly went out of print and stayed there. In truth, it wasn’t much different from being published by a small press publisher like Golden Gryphon or Arkham. And it’s difficult to imagine a trade publisher being anymore successful with Cordwainer Smith’s The Rediscovery of Man, which has been extraordinarily successful for NESFA Press.

There is, perhaps, more cause to be concerned when we turn to limited edition small press publishing. Limited edition short story collections can range in print runs from one hundred to maybe one thousand copies (it’s unusual for a print run of more than one thousand to be considered a limited edition). They are, typically, more expensive than trade books, harder to find, and are not typically reprinted. A book like Lewis Shiner’s Love in Vain was published in an edition of 626 copies, went out of print before publication, and remains out of print today, while Lucius Shepard’s Trujillo was published in an edition of 700 copies last year, and sells for between two and three times the price of a typical trade published collection. I assume these books are less financially rewarding for writers than trade editions or unlimited editions, but typically writers have much more control over the books (which often is some compensation). What does concern me slightly is that these books, it seems to me, are more aimed at delivering fiction to a writer’s existing audience, rather than attempting to reach out to a potentially larger audience. It’s a personal value judgement, but I wonder what impact this may have in the future.

There is one assumption that seems to underpin Feeley’s comments that I doubt a little. Feeley seems to imply that there was a time when trade publishers were happy, or at least happier, publishing short story collections. Very, very arguably, the commercial heyday of the short story was in the first half of the last century, during the great pulp fiction boom when magazines like Harper’s sold in the millions, and sf magazines proliferated. At that time a collection of literary merit outside the genre seemed to have a real chance of being published, and as science fiction books became more common, so to did genre story collections. However, it seems to me that since the 1970s at least the collection has been in something of a decline, a decline that continues to this day.

In writing this I began to wonder how well the books Feeley chose as his examples – Terry Bisson’s Greetings and Other Stories, Carol Emshwiller’s I Live With You, Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners, Maureen F. McHugh’s Mothers and Other Monsters, Bruce Holland Rogers’s Thirteen Ways to Water and Other Stories, and Howard Waldrop’s Heart of Whitenesse – illustrated his case. I’ve mentioned the Link and McHugh titles. Of the others, Emshwiller has published almost entirely with small presses or small trade publishers, as has Rogers, and the only one of Waldrop’s collections to appear first from a trade publisher was Howard Who? (the book Feeley cites was actually originally published as a small press title, then reprinted by Gordon Van Gelder at St Martins). Only Bisson’s book is one that seems likely to have appeared from his trade publisher, Tor, and we don’t know why it didn’t. Perhaps a better example for Feeley might be Paul McAuley’s Little Machines. All of McAuley’s previous collections have come from his trade publisher, but this very impressive book was recently published by the UK’s PS Publishing in a 700-copy limited edition. While it’s publication is a welcome event, and PS is to be applauded, a larger edition would have seemed likely only a year or two ago.

One of the more disturbing observations in Feeley’s piece comes from David Hartwell. In the introduction to Robert Sheckley’s upcoming NESFA Press collection The Masque of Mañana, Hartwell writes that this situation is “a growing disaster and a betrayal of the history of SF achievement in the 20th century.” He continues: “Despite the efforts of NESFA Press and others, almost everybody is looking at novels as the measure of a writer’s true quality. If this goes on without challenge, everyone from Damon Knight to Harlan Ellison, from Lucius Shepard to Ted Chiang will end up as second rank, and not worthy of Grand Master awards no matter how fine their stories. And to put it bluntly, there are a disproportionate number of excellent short story writers in the SF tradition, but not a lot of first class novelists.”

I haven’t read the full text of Hartwell’s introduction so I may not have the proper context, but I’d imagine his comments aren’t based on the ability of writers to sell short story collections. Rather, I’d guess they’re based around the declining readership for short fiction and his fears that that decline may result in a loss of prestige for those writers whose reputations rest on their short fiction output. Sadly, if we set aside commercial considerations, I think he may have a point. I strongly doubt that writers like Ellison or Shepard will ever be considered second rank or unworthy of Grand Master Awards, but I do wonder if they might be forgotten entirely. I can see a day when short fiction is as minority an interest as poetry, and when almost no one reads it. Is that part of a natural lifecycle of an art form? Is the short story (and hence the short story writer) inherently doomed, pushed out of the food chain by bigger, faster predators? It may be so. More people may want to watch a movie or play a game than read, and those who read may prefer to read novels than stories. I hope not, though. I think the short story, and the short story writer, is worth fighting for. It’s why I edit anthologies, and I assume one of the reasons why David does.

Do I believe that ‘collections of literary merit have ever been so entirely abjured by trade publishers as now.’ Not really, and I’m not sure that I blame them. I do think, though, that the genre short story is in a state of extraordinary good health and I’d hate to see anything endanger that.

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