When browsing Young Adult (YA), one of my preferred genres, I pay particular attention to recurring themes or trends at the highest levels. For example, post Harry Potter, magic was a big recurring theme. When Twilight was the rage, it seemed the undead outnumbered the living three to one on the shelves. More recently, the undead started dying off but magic, in particular magical creatures, was back on the rise. My last literary stroll, and it was a while ago, thank you COVID, revealed that retellings of tried-and-true fairy tales with a more modern sensibility, often with what were, until recently, marginalized characters, are taking the forefront.
The Mystery nook, another of my personal favorite, also conforms to trends. Where scientific forensic investigation once held sway, historical mysteries have taken over. Hardboiled detectives are all but extinct but the soft hearted, wickedly keen, bumbler is doing nicely. And it is nice to see women detectives have abandoned their knitting needles and are robust, young, and vibrant.
None of the above should be news to anyone involved in writing or publishing. Market trends exist. Writing and publishing is, at the end of the day, a business and businesses exist to make money. The down side to this is it can, and as I point out above, does create something of an echo chamber. Tropes bounce back and forth, wrapped inside legitimately unique plots, until “the next big thing” comes along. In order for that to happen, writers, agents and publishers at some point have to stick their necks out and take a big risk. That risk is taking on a story that isn’t currently trending or has no real track record to compare against. When talking about the job that is putting shoes on our kids feet and food on the family table, the risk is real!
But we still have an echo chamber, and it just may be growing bigger.
In 2012 Random House and Penguin merged into the juggernaut that is Penguin Random House (PRH). Perhaps I should say ‘was’ because in 2020 PRH not only out bid but, according to reports, well overpaid to acquire Simon and Shuster. The motivation for the acquisition, as I understand it, was to build a bigger club to swing in Amazon’s direction. It’s not a bad argument, but the collapse of such a huge market share of publishing under one roof has potentially chilling repercussions.
If, when PRH was formed, there was enough legitimate concern for The Atlantic to write, “Think of less diversity among books. Imagine less personality among publishers. And then think of a relentless conveyer belt of books that will reinforce this lack of distinction,” (The Atlantic, July 10, 2013), how much greater is that homogenizing effect going to be when only three major publishing houses are left? When one of those three controls 70% (News Corps’ numbers) of the U.S. literary and general fiction market?
As I pointed out above, we are already seeing a trend toward all publishing houses selling astoundingly similar products to targeted major demographics. Can any case be made that by further depleting the publishing field while at the same time giving one mega-publisher disproportionate power to influence those trends, literature in general will remain as diverse, as edgy, as controversial, or as interesting?
I know authors who say things like, “I could write an awesome rework of Alice In Wonderland,” after a walk through the bookshop. I seldom hear, “I have this outrageously unique character caught in a world like no one ever imagined.” Sadly, when I do hear the latter, it is tied off with, “But it’d never sell. Not in today’s market.”
The simple truth is reducing publishing outlets reduces writers’ options for their work, leaves fewer bidders for their manuscripts, drives down advances and makes it harder to negotiate better deals. Agents are far less likely to stick their necks out. Authors face more restrictions on what their work can look like. Anyone who has ever held a job knows companies have a corporate culture. Publishers already only accept work that dovetails well with their corporate image, or brand. There is no reason to assume PRH-S&S will not do the same, driving many alternative or boat-rocking voices away with far fewer inns available to find room. This turns risk taking by authors, agents, and editors into an very unpleasant ice water challenge.
Unfortunately, I have no solution to any of this. I am very much a free-market individual. For example, I don’t like the potential for censorship Amazon holds by being the world’s largest book distributor but I would never suggest outside authorities dictate what Amazon may or may not carry in their inventory. Maybe I don’t need a solution. Maybe I just need to be aware of the problem and its potential implications and keep an eye on it as it progresses, mutates and evolves.
What are your thoughts? If you are an author, agent, or work for a publisher I’d love to hear from you, but all are welcome to comment. If you have an answer, I'd sure like to hear it!