Posts Tagged ‘genre fiction’

Cody’s As it Was in 1977

February 10, 2011

When I became the owner of Cody’s in 1977, it was primarily stocked paperbacks. Although the idea of a paperback bookstore was novel, paperbacks had been around for a long time, at least since the mid 19th century. The first strictly paperback  publisher was Pocket Books, founded in 1939. Its famous logo of  Gertrude the kangaroo is still on the spines of Pocket Book titles.  The company is now an imprint of Simon and Schuster.  The first title they published was Lost Horizons by James Hilton.

New paperback publishers started popping up in the 1940’s. Penguin Books, Bantam, New American Library,   and  Ballantine Books still live on today as imprints of larger houses. The  books they published were called “mass market” paperbacks. They were and continue to be rack sized books and were primarily sold outside of the traditional book channels. Mostly you found them in magazine outlets and drug stores. In the 1950s publishers started producing “trade paperback” books. These were of a larger format and were usually sold in the new paperback oriented bookstores like Cody’s and Keplers.

Before the mid-1970’s, booksellers couldn’t buy mass market books direct. They were forced to buy them from local magazine distributors with unfavorable trade terms and limited selection. A lot of these distributors were run by the mob, who kept both the bookseller and the publisher in a state of terror. Gradually publishers started showing some uncharacteristic backbone and began selling direct to booksellers. There were a number of reports of “representatives” from the magazine distributors, goons really, making personal visits to booksellers in order to discourage them from dealing directly with the publishers. But the booksellers (who were mostly small shopkeepers back then) showed their  characteristic courage and independence that continues to be their hallmark to this day. Fred Cody told the story of a visit from one of these representatives who threatened to break his knees.

Although the mass market publishers sold reprints of hardback bestsellers, they really excelled at genre fiction. That still is their long  suit today. Genre fiction is a publishing term of art for mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, westerns, thrillers and romance. A lot of the stuff was pretty cheesy. The covers in those days were wonderful —  full of babes in suggestive poses, their bodacious bodies pouring out of their skimpy clothes. Titles like Flesh Pots of Malibu. Some nice lesbian action too, mostly taking place in ladies’  prison blocks.

My favorite genre back in the 70s were the romances which we called “bodice rippers” referring to the formulaic schlock-o covers  of shirtless muscle men and swashbucklers ripping the bodices off  the swooning, usually excessively endowed, heroine. I remember every year at the booksellers convention, the romance publishers would hire big hunks, usually dressed up as pirates to promote the titles. There were also women at the booths who all looked like a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and Daisy Mae Yokum. The most popular and probably the most tasteless title in this genre was one called: Mandingo. It had a a larger than life slave with bulging muscles popping out of his tattered clothes along with the daughter of the slave master, ripped bodice and all, swooning at his feet. 

 In 1977 Cody’s was a large store for its time. It was about 8900 square feet. That’s not impressive compared to the giant superstores around the country now that are sometimes as large as 60,000 square feet. It always seemed a lot larger though. The Codys had built this structure themselves in 1963. The main room was 35 feet high with floor to ceiling windows giving it a cathedral-like feeling of space. It was filled up with funky homemade pine bookshelves sagging with spine out paperbacks. It was pretty impressive when you walked into the store. It looked like it had every book ever published.

  When I bought the store, there were only 17 employees. But that was an enormous change for me. I had previously only managed one or two people at any given time. The staff were paid $3.25 per hour. Pat Cody always said that the employees  had to settle for the psychic compensation of being surrounded by books. It was true that most of the employees were hired because they, too, had a passion for books. I was fortunate to have two managers who were experienced, competent and gifted booksellers. The general manager was Nick Setka. He was 27 years old then and did most of the buying for the store, which was perfect for his wonderful, intuitive understanding of books. Ed Manegold, then in his early 30’s, was the assistant manager. He was smart, committed,  and much more tough minded than either Nick or me.   Outside of finding the right book for a customer, buying was the only fun job in bookselling. So I tried to join in on that. Usually Nick and I would sit down together with the salesmen. Back then the sales reps were known with the rather quaint name of: “travelers.”  Nick is still in the book business. He is a manager at Book Passage in Marin County and works there with my wife, Leslie Berkler.

In 1977,  the store was organized and stocked in a way that reflected the passions of the owners, Pat and Fred.  The front table, the most prominent real estate in the store, was filled with self-published and small press  books. Fred believed in small presses with a passion. It was a kind of political position. He once made a public statement that he would stock one copy of any small press book that was offered to him.  That statement came back to haunt him, but it tells a lot about Fred’s passion as a bookseller.  I was less thrilled with the small presses. A lot of  those books seemed to be  solipsistic exercises. But still  times were different then and there really were some phenomenal small presses, many of which were located in the Bay  Area. Some of them still exist today. City Lights Books in San Francisco started its publishing arm in 1955. It most famously published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl  the following year. Over in Berkeley Phil Wood gave up his sales rep job at Penguin and decided to start publishing. His first book, Anybody’s Bike Book, inspired the name for his new publishing company, Ten Speed Press. The book went on to sell a million copies, and Ten Speed Press still exists today. In 2009  it was bought by Random House and continues to be an imprint there. Phil died in 2010 after a long bout with cancer. He was a legend and a reminder of a time when publishing was  a more personal endeavor  driven by people with a passion for books.  I admired Phil tremendously throughout his career and will miss him. I miss him a lot.

Here is a list of the bestselling titles of 1977, the year I bought Cody’s.

Fiction

1. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien; Christopher Tolkien

2. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

3. Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, Richard Bach

4. The Honourable Schoolboy, John Le Carré

5. Oliver’s Story, Erich Segal

6. Dreams Die First, Harold Robbins

7. Beggarman, Thief, Irwin Shaw

8. How To Save Your Own Life, Erica Jong

9. Delta of Venus: Erotica, Anaïs Nin

10. Daniel Martin, John Fowles

Non-fiction 

1. Roots, Alex Haley

2. Looking Out for #1, Robert Ringer

3. All Things Wise and Wonderful, James Herriot

4. Your Erroneous Zones, Dr. Wayne W. Dyer

5. The Book of Lists, David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace

6. The Possible Dream: A Candid Look at Amway, Charles Paul Conn

7. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, Carl Sagan

8. The Second Ring of Power, Carlos Castaneda

9. The Grass ls Always Greener over the Septic Tank, Erma Bombeck

10. The Amityville Horror, Jay Anson

Not such a bad list of titles, all things considered. The really hot books at Cody’s were quite a bit different though. Yes, we sold bunches of Carlos Castaneda, Tolkien, and Alex Haley’s Roots. And even a few of the less memorable titles on the list like James Herriot, Erma Bombeck and The Thorn Birds

But Cody’s was really marching to the beat of a different drummer. We would sell hundreds, even thousands, of books like Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida, The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault,  Anti-Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze and Ecrits by Jacques Lacan.  (And almost anything else by French philosophers and considered “post modern”). These books were all written with such opaque jargon that they could only be understood, if at all, by those initiated into mysteries of the cult of deconstruction.   To the cognoscenti, these books were nothing less than a redefinition of philosophy and literary theory. For the rest of us, it seemed like fashionable nonsense.

 Radical politics was still a passion in those days and  was reflected in the books available in the store. Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man had inspired a generation of radical students since its publication   in 1964. Cody’s had two cases of books on “Marxism”. Aside from the collected works of the master and his major disciples, Lenin, Mao,  and Gramschi, we sold a lot of the contemporary Marxist thinkers. Perhaps the most popular of the new Marxists was Louis Althusser, another French scholar. He was considered a “structuralist” which I guess gave him a license to write the obligatory impenetrable prose. In 1980 he strangled his wife to death. But  this did not seem to have harmed his reputation as a brilliant intellectual.  His fans spent a lot of time spinning out strained arguments about why we should distinguish between the profundity of his ideas and the fact that in life he was a homicidal psychopath.  They should have just accepted it as an embarrassment and left it at that.

 Scholars and philosophers  like Jürgen Habermas, Hannah Arendt, Fernand Braudel, Claude Levi-Strauss, Jean Piaget, and Walter Benjamin sold well at Cody’s over the years. At one point, Cody’s was selling 10% of the national sales of Walter Benjamin’s classic work of literary criticism, Illuminations.

In contrast to the two cases of books on Marxism, the six cases on philosophy and the ten cases on criticism and literary theory, we only had one shelf of books on business, half of which was taken up by a single title, What Color is your Parachute?

The world changes and bookstores reflect those changes. As we moved into the 21st century, the business section had increased to about 20 cases including subsections on management, sales, real estate, and investing. Marxism became a kind of an intellectual footnote, of importance only to the history of ideas. Most of the titles in the Marxism section quietly went out of print or stopped selling. And we folded up the section and incorporated the few remaining titles into politics, history, and philosophy.

Cody’s maintained its reputation as a great venue for scholarly titles until the very end. One of the saddest moments in my career was in early 2006. Unlike most retailers who put excess inventory on sale, bookstores can return books that are no longer selling to publishers. We did this almost daily based on lists that were kicked out by the computer of titles with no sales for the previous nine months. I was pulling returns that day and noticed that on the returns  list was our last copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I was stunned to think that I was taking the most important work of modern philosophy out of the store, but it hadn’t sold in over a year. I left it on the shelf anyway. But that was when  I realized that our time was up. Six months later we closed the Telegraph Avenue store.

Advertisements

Laurie McLean on Genre Fiction

February 25, 2010

Laurie McLean

Laurie McLean is a literary agent specializing in genre fiction. That is a term of art for such categories as: romance, thrillers, mysteries, fantasy, horror, westerns, science fiction, etc.. Laurie has been a literary agent for 5 years and works at the Larsen Pomada Agency in San Francisco. The agency’s website is at: http://www.larsen-pomada.com/lp/pages.cfm?ID=15. She has a fantastic blog, Agent Savant at: http://www.agentsavant.com/as/, which is a good place to start learning about genre fiction.

Today I’d like to talk to Laurie about genre fiction.

Andy: Laurie, can you give us a definition of genre fiction? I mean, don’t all book subjects fit into a genre?

Laurie: The term, genre fiction, is used by marketing folks inside publishing and bookstores to help book buyers, also called readers, find the type of books they like to read. If one is a reader of mysteries, then it makes sense that a bookstore would shelve all mysteries together to increase overall sales. That’s really why the term genre fiction was coined—to differentiate these specific genres from general commercial or literary fiction.  It’s also similar to the way non-fiction is shelved by interest rather than author.

Andy: I’d like to go through each of the genres and have you describe them and tell me what publishers are looking for now.

Laurie: Science Fiction: It seems that the UK is the biggest audience for hard science fiction, while US readers prefer space opera and softer speculative fiction. There is also cyberpunk, where man has integrated with computers; time travel; alternate history; military SF; and the newest craze, post-apocalyptic or dystopian speculative fiction.  Think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Fantasy: Epic fantasy, also called sword-and-sorcery or high fantasy, is the coming of age quest tale like the Lord of the Rings or the Sword of Shannara books. It has gone down in popularity today by what is called urban fantasy, stories that revolve around the conceit that supernatural creatures, mainly vampires, werewolves or other shapeshifters, ghosts, demons, etc., have lived among us forever but are now recognized by humanity and begrudgingly accepted—until a rogue creature starts wreaking havoc and humans and preternaturals must team up to put things back in balance.  It features a lot of ass kicking but no quests.  There is also interest currently in steampunk, where everything from appliances to weaponry to transportation runs on steam and the devices and clothing are very Jules Verne-esque; futuristic fantasy; superhero fantasy, etc.  Fantasy and Science Fiction can sometimes genre blend or bend and are often located in the same section of the bookstore.

Romance: When you have a hero and heroine who meet, with sparks flying, then internal and external conflicts keep them apart despite their mutual attraction until the end of the book when a happy ever after ensues, you know you are talking about the largest genre in fiction by far: romance. More than 50 percent of mass market [pocket size paperbacks] fiction sales in the United States each year are genre romance.  The biggest trend in genre romance lately is paranormal romance, but there are also contemporary, historical, comedies, romantic suspense, inspirational and erotic subgenres.

Mysteries/Suspense/Thrillers: I’ve lumped all these together, although they are all different. In mysteries you have a murder in the first scene and the remainder of the book is spent trying to figure out who dunnit.  In Thrillers, the fate of the world is at stake and the clock is ticking.  Suspense novels are somewhere in between where a family could be in jeopardy, or a town or group of friends and the protagonist(s) must save them with, again, time against them.  You’ve also got subgenres within these categories such as cozy or detective mysteries; legal, crime, action, disaster, conspiracy and religious thrillers; and more.

Horror: While horror, now sometimes called Dark Fantasy, is more popular on the movie screen than in books, you have everything from serial killers to splatterpunk (think the Saw movie series) to dark fantasy, to more psychological horror.

Young adult: This is not a genre, per se, but one of the healthiest and fastest growing categories in fiction. The young adult, or YA, category was created by a savvy bookseller who observed families coming into the bookstore, the young children going to the children’s section, the parents going to the adult stacks and the teens going to the coffee shop. The young adult section was created and all of a sudden teens had a comfortable place to shop for books about subjects ranging from chick lit and teen fantasy to more contemporary realistic gritty fare about teen suicide, pregnancy, drugs, sexuality preferences and more. Urban fantasy and post-apocalyptic fantasy are currently big trends for teens.

Andy: In the greatest works, doesn’t genre fiction cross over into literary fiction? Isn’t the greatest romance novel ever Wuthering Heights? Can you give us some examples of contemporary works in the genre that are also literary masterpieces?

 Laurie: When a genre book is superbly written and an instant classic, it rises out of the genre shelves and migrates over to the general fiction or bestseller stacks.  Think anything from Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer for romance—or modern names like Nora Roberts and Jayne Anne Krentz; Stephen King or Dean Koontz for horror; Terry Brooks, Neil Gaiman or J.K. Rowling for fantasy; John Grisham, Dan Brown and Tom Clancy for thrillers; William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Orson Scott Card for science fiction; Janet Evanovich or Sue Grafton for mysteries; Stephenie Meyer and Scott Westerfeld for young adult.

Andy: Which of these categories are hot and which of them are not?

Laurie: Hot: Young adult, steampunk, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, political thrillers, apocalyptic fiction.

Not hot: Chick lit, contemporary and inspirational romance, epic fantasy, quaint cozy mysteries.

Andy: Do you think that the rise of the e-book offers opportunities or challenges for genre fiction? It seems to me that these titles are perfect for the new electronic formats.

Laurie: Erotic romance was one of the first genres to do well in the eBook format and some credit this subgenre for the rise of eBooks today. Ellora’s Cave was a pioneer in racy romance. But really all genres do well in eBook format. They are perfect for this digital format in terms of storage (you can fit a lot of vacations reads on your eReader but not in your suitcase) and anonymity (no one can see that you’re reading a “bodice ripper”, the disparaging term for romance novels).

Andy: You ran a public relations agency for 20 years in Silicon Valley. Why did you get out? How do you like being an agent?

Laurie: I got out of high tech public relations when the lucrative nature of the business could no longer hold my interest as the challenges declined and ethics began to get compromised.  Being a literary agent, to me, combined the best of both halves of my brain, similar to the way being a publicist allowed me to be creative and strategic simultaneously. I love the publishing industry because it really is about the writing. They money’s not the greatest unless you’re a bestseller or handle a stable of bestselling authors, but every day is different, the pace is often bracing and exhilarating, and the people I deal with on a daily basis are wonderful. I think I’ve found my calling!

Andy: How has your experience in public relations been helpful in your second career?

Laurie: All the facets of what made me successful in PR—time management, marketing savvy, the ability to think on my feet, contract negotiations, interpersonal skills, a diligent hard work ethic, attention to details, the ability to think outside the box—all come in handy for a literary agent.

Andy: When we had lunch the other day, you astonished me by saying  that you receive 1200 unsolicited queries a month. How do you manage to address this ocean of pitches?

Laurie: Well, this is kind of like the frog in boiling water analogy. If you put a frog in boiling water, it jumps out immediately. But if you put a frog in cold water and turn on the heat, that frog will boil to death because of the gradual nature of the temperature rise. I started off with a small number of queries each day and could easily give personal suggestions for improvement and reasons for rejections. When I got busier, I switched to a form rejection letter where I could add a few sentences of advice in many cases.  But by the end of 2009 I was receiving more than 1200 queries a month. I was boiling. So, I’ve had to change my submission process. Now I have a separate email address for queries only (query@agentsavant.com) where I have an automated reply that informs the writer that I’ve received his or her submission, but they will not hear from me again unless I want to read more of their work. It’s not something I ever thought I’d do, but once I’d given up my spare time, some of my sleep and meal time, and it still wasn’t enough, something had to give. Now I don’t have the monkey on my back screaming and clawing at me. I can read queries on the weekend, as many as I can fit in the hours I have, and ask for more from those that interest me.