Saturday, February 6, 2016

Joanna Russ: An Amazonian Visionary

Joanna Russ writes:*

Assuming this to be free advertising space, I will now put in a plug for writers, who—with a very few exceptions—are day laborers paid piecework in an industry that is shaky, badly advertised, and poor, largely due not to its choice of books or its editing of them, but to an impossible distribution system for paperbacks (in which the distributors and the retail outlets do not share in the risk and in which books are merchandised like Kleenex) and a vehement confusion between old-style paperback selling (impulse buying) and the emerging reality that soon there ain’t gonna be hardbacks except for specialized books and library sales. Nobody has adjusted to this yet. Nobody knows who buys books where and why. It is a mess.

It is rude and crude to rend the lovely veils of spidery illusion which blow so gently over our work, but for a field that prides itself on being down-to-earth there is an extraordinary reluctance to look at the economic facts. Many Americans seem to be like this—maybe art is supposed to be Above All That.

My own, quixotic dream for the paperback-book industry is a giant Sears-Roebuck-ish, centralized store which will carry remaindered books at lowered (or raised) prices (depending on their bibliographic value and the rise due to inflation) and have wee beautiful catalogs in every hamlet, village, and town where people (now that the movies are too expensive) can go when TV palls and find old Phyllis Whitney gothics (Look! I found a copy of Fear in the Old Castle!) or HPL (Look! Horrible Monsters from Old New England!) or controversial books (How can anybody bear to talk about such filthy things in public? I’ll buy it.), order them (see? No problems with shelf space), pay for them, and get them (quickly). The books would move only when paid for, copies would not be shredded (as they are now when they’re not sold within about ten days). But how would prices on old paperbacks be changed? With a goddamn supermarket stamp, nudnick!

College bookstores (as three of them have told me) always sell SF if it remains on the shelves long enough. The real problems are distribution and information (really identical).

Of course, such an operation would require a vast capital outlay. Or would it? Specialized bookstores do this kind of thing already. At any rate, it points in the proper direction, I think. The first step is for some brilliant sociologist or computer programmer out there (hello, hello?) to get a grant to study just who buys books and why, something about which there are a lot of publishers’ theories and no facts. A big grant. And then . . . ?

Say, why don’t one of you readers . . . ?

*This piece was added following Joanna Russ's short-story, "Existence" which appeared in the SF collection, Epoch: The State of the Art of Science Fiction Now
Edited by Roger Elwood and Robert Silverberg
(c) 1975 Berkley/Putnam Publishing  593 pp