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More “Boys vs. Girls”, Fewer Books from Borders…

July 26, 2011

Apropos of my Friday post about audience gender in Speculative Fiction, I came across this today: an article about Joanne Rowling’s mega-successful “Hermione Granger” series

Now, I’m a fan of the Harry Potter series, and I’m also a believer in egalitarian ideals.  So I get where this article is going.  Essentially, it is critiquing not Harry Potter but the society that makes it such that in order to meet the goal of “appealing to both genders” the series necessarily had to be about a boy.  I’ll agree, Hermione was easily the most capable character in the book, and I seriously identified more with Hermione and, say, Neville Longbottom than I really did with Harry. I didn’t have a terrible upbringing like Harry.  But I was seriously good in school, and I studied and worked hard throughout.  And it would’ve been cool, I thought, if the hero could’ve been someone who was like me – who was good in school and liked studying and liked knowing things.  Instead, that role went to a supporting cast member.

(Now, Hermione lost me when she went ga-ga-eyed for some dumb jock, i.e. Viktor Krum.)

I disagree with the criticism leveled directly at Harry’s character in that piece, but the general criticism of society is sadly valid.  Things have improved in recent years, but historically there’s been a strange aversion to female protagonists, particularly within Speculative Fiction.  As I pointed out in my responses to comments on that post, my current novel project, “The Book of M” – which I characterize as a Steampunk-flavored Post-Apocalyptic Epic Fantasy – has a female protagonist.  I thought about changing her to a boy at one point but, well… it didn’t fit my vision of the story.  The inspiration for the story came in part from an image I had in my head.  And that image failed if I replaced my female protagonist with a boy.  It just didn’t inspire my imagination.  Hopefully by the time I’m done with this and it’s ready for the world, the world will be ready for a female protagonist who’s not a sex symbol.  And hopefully I can write that protagonist right.  I’m betting the world is ready – I think it is already.  What remains to be seen is whether I have the skill to write that story.

Now, if only the taboo against smart, bookish protagonists could be broken.

Shifting gears just a bit, I thought I’d share these links about the death of Borders bookstores:

Bad Decisions, Worse Luck: How Borders Blew It

The Chain is Dead on Scrivener’s Error

As has been pointed out, this is unequivocably a bad thing for writers and authors (and for readers, for that matter).  A lot of hash has been made about how the Death of Borders is another sign of the death of printed books and the rise of the ebook – or about how ebooks killed Borders.

It may be that print books are in decline and the rise of the ebook is now unstoppable.  The jury’s still out on that one, I think.  (I anticipate a mixed verdict.)  But I think that ebooks did not kill Borders – bad management did.  And there’s ample evidence that this is the case.  These two links pretty much get to the main meat of how and why.

The discussion on Scrivener’s error points to one of the main points: it comes down to the idea of “fungibility”.  For those of you who didn’t just google the term to find out what it means, it’s basically the idea that one product or item can be replaced with another because they are basically the same.  The first article talks about the same thing when it suggests management tried to treat books like “shampoo”.  Another way of putting it is that Borders treated books like commodities

This is something that we studied in my MBA program.  What you don’t want to have happen to your products: you don’t want them to be commoditized.  Commodities, by definition, are almost 100% purely fungible.  Take “corn syrup” for instance.  Corn syrup from Agri-business A is basically the same as corn syrup from Agri-business B.  And Coca-Cola doesn’t really care where the corn syrup comes from; they just need a lot of it and cheaply if they’re going to make the non-diet Coca-Cola.  When your product is a commodity, they go under some pretty intense price pressures.  So instead, what you want is differentiability.  If there is something that makes your product different or unique from another product, that difference is potentially worth some value to your customers.  (There is something intangible, for instance, that makes Coca-Cola different from Pepsi.)  If  you’re making corn syrup, the only differentiability you have is your physical location: it might be easier to ship syrup from one place than another.  That’s not a lot of differentiability to go on.

Books, as you readers no doubt are aware, are way way way way down the spectrum away from the commoditized, fungible end of things and toward the highly differentiated end.  One book is not the same as another.  They’re not even wholly fungible within genres.  The latest George R. R. Martin, for instance, cannot easily be replaced by a slap-dash Tolkien-clone thrown up on the Kindle by a fifteen-year-old who didn’t even bother hitting the spellcheck button before posting it.  One of these things, as the old Sesame Street ditty went, is not like the other.  Those are two extremes, but they illustrate a point.  When someone comes in looking for George R. R. Martin, they won’t be mollified by a midlist epic fantasy author.  And just as often vice versa – if they’re interested in a lesser-known epic fantasy author that has recently been generating some awesome internet buzz but who hasn’t had a big break-out yet… well… on that day that customer is specifically not looking for George R. R. Martin.  Maybe in a few weeks, after finishing that awesome new fantasy book by the lesser-known author.  It’s the latter situation that was likely at the heart of Borders slow demise, in that they tried to devalue any given genre to the lowest common denominator – that is, the most mass-market or popular books in a given category – and slowly eroding the goodwill of readers who enjoy digging deeper and reading wider. 

That was a fatal business mistake.  The ebook nail in their coffin: that was a footnote.  It was important, but it wasn’t something that couldn’t be recovered from.  Even Barnes & Noble was somewhat late to the party, but they still managed to make it in time to get a slice of the cake.  By the time the ebook revolution really took off late in 2010, however, the writing was already on the wall for Borders.

So, I’m sad at the loss of Borders.  Because paradoxically it’s going to mean a further tightening of belts at major publishers, and a further entrenchment to focus on old, tried-and-true, blockbuster authors.  There will be less and less room for new talent.  There will be less and less room for established but “mid-list” talent.  And all because one major sales chain failed, in large measure, to give enough space to lesser-known talents and enough free-reign to adjust to local tastes.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 26, 2011 12:23 pm

    I’m happy you’re writing a female protagonist! I was just thinking about book covers and genre. It seems (at least from my limited observation) that there are more female protagonists in steampunk than other genres like epic fantasy. Honestly I wish there were more diversity in the females being written. Sometimes an ass kicking leather wearing heroine can be fun, but really, is that all? Of course not. We need smart women, shy women, women who are villainous, women who are gritty, women who choose to stay home and raise families, women for whom work/ambition is everything, as many types of women as there are shades of grey… I could go on and on. NK Jemisin wrote a great piece about the Limitations of Womanhood in Fantasy recently. A thought provoking piece.

    • July 26, 2011 1:14 pm

      I’ll agree with that and add: we need more protagonists of all different kinds of people, regardless of gender – because real people are of all different kinds. Genderwise, however, historically there have just been more male protagonists, numerically, and so there has been a lot more variety in personality types in male protagonists. I will say, though, that on balance likely most of my protagonists will be male, over time. But sometimes I’ll just have to write a female protagonist, because that’s what my story calls for. Also, I read that piece by Jemisin, though it might bear reading again as I work my way through “Book of M”…

  2. July 26, 2011 6:39 pm

    Good article by Jemisin. I heard once that over 50% of fantasy readers are female, so it makes sense that there needs to be more relatable characters for the market.

    • July 27, 2011 8:34 am

      That makes sense, since more than 50% of people are female… (though, as I understand it, it’s only slightly more than 50).

  3. July 31, 2011 12:31 pm

    Oh, I agree. More women, as central characters, of all kinds. T.S. gave some very good examples.

    And, related, the point you didn’t really emphasize, that women should be able to write and get published under names which are recognizeably female, without the pressure for “Joanne” to publish as “J.K.” I recently came up without about ten other examples in a minute or two, without having to strain my brain.

    Well, I’m trying to do my part. A smart, bookish reporter and amateur detective. A troubled mass-murderer. A proudly independent teenage street urchin who curses like a sailor. A teenage head of state. A successful trial lawyer. Those are the majors, and there are some secondary ones like the head of a mysterious motorcycle gang. And a woman who has decided to live her life as a dog.

    So, pretty diverse. All female Not all good or all bad, that’s for sure. In the first draft of my third novel, I realized that it was tilting too much towards the strong women and I beefed up one male part to compensate and get things back in balance. But I have a huge advantage in that I’m not trying to get published conventionally.

    • August 1, 2011 9:17 am

      You’re right about the author/gender situation. And things haven’t changed much since J.K. came around. For instance: “N.K. Jemisin”, who’s generated a lot of buzz with her 100K Kingdoms books… I don’t know whether there was publisher/marketing pressure that caused her published name to be “N.K.” instead of her actual full name, or if it was a personal choice or what… but it certainly looks like the same sort of story that turned a “Joanne” into a “J.K.”. On the other hand, you have other female authors like Mary Robinette Kowal who are definitely using feminine names. The trade-off being, I would guess, that they are aiming for a predominately (though I’m sure not exclusively) female audience. In the case of MRK, which perhaps is not the best example, this is transparent in the way her books are described as being like Regency/Jane Austen-style books with magic… when relatively few males will rarely ever willingly pick up a book in the Regency/Jane Austen vein. I’d really have to think for a moment about a clear female-named author who is writing books that might ostensibly be aiming for a general male-and-female-mixed audience… and none comes immediately to mind.

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