Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Blogger Went a-Rantin'

The stultifying experience that was Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian (a book that answers the question 'What happens when you take the horrifying and the supernatural out of supernatural horror?') left me none too eager to dive into another brick-sized fantasy set in Eastern Europe, but the praise for Paul Park's A Princess of Roumania has, for the last few weeks, been wearing me down. By the time Cheryl Morgan got around to giving the book a rave review in Emerald City a few days ago, I was ready to put it on my wish list. And then I noticed this little comment:
About the only thing wrong with this novel is that it is yet another one of those books that Tor has chosen to cut in half and publish in two installments. We’ll have to wait for The Tourmaline, due out sometime next year, to read the end of the tale.
Which pretty much means that I'm not reading Park's book on general principle. Call me old-fashioned, but when I buy a book, I expect it to have a beginning, a middle and an end, not necessarily in that order, and I don't intend to pay the price of two books (which in the case of hardcovers comes to $50) for that pleasure. There is literally nothing I hate more in modern publishing than Tor's recent habit of cutting books in half and publishing them in two volumes. They started the practice with Gene Wolfe's The Wizard Knight (published as The Knight and The Wizard) and kept it going with Charles Stross' The Merchant Princes (The Family Trade and The Hidden Family)--both books submitted to Tor in a single volume but sold to readers in two. Splitting up Park's novel is a clear indicator that this vile practice isn't going anywhere.

Back in February, Rick Kleffel examined Tor's new policy, albeit with kid gloves, in his Agony Column. He blamed the practice on chain bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble, who refuse to carry long books by unknown and mid-list authors. I'll accept that the chains share some culpability in this issue, but I'll also note that no other publishing house, genre or otherwise, has chosen to deal with this problem by splitting up their books. It can hardly be a coincidence that all the books that have been split belong to a genre whose readers had already proven that they were willing to buy multiple continuations and sequels to their favorite books. Nor does blaming the problem on chain bookstores in the case of hardcover novels explain why none of the paperback editions of the split books have contained both volumes.

But what I really don't understand is why Kleffel and Morgan and everyone else writing about SFF publishing isn't spitting mad about this issue. Possibly I'm over-sensitive: being an English reader in Israel is a frustrating and expensive proposition. There's one bookstore chain that carries English books--at a markup of 50-100%--and their SFF selection is pathetic. My local library's English section consists mostly of my cast-offs. Amazon sells books at decent prices, but the shipping rates are so prohibitive that they cancel out the savings. Still, I have to believe that even people for whom Wolfe and Stross and Park's novels are readily available would pause before spending $50 on a single book. Is it really possible that this kind of financial consideration doesn't occur to Morgan, who apparently believes that the worst consequence of book-splitting is the fact that she's going to have to wait a few months to read the rest of the story, when she notes that "two 450 page books make more money than one 900 page book" as if that actually justified Tor's behavior?

And really, what are the odds that any of the split books need to be as long as they are? This is fantasy, after all, original home of the doorstopping tome and the umpteen-volume series. There's a culture of excess in the genre that publishers have been capitalizing on for decades, in light of which it's hard to view Tor's decision to split books as anything other than a new variant on an old scam--they get to save on editors and make us pay double.

Which, once again, leads me to wonder why more people aren't upset. How is it possible that this kind of avarice doesn't result in wide-spread condemnation? And even if I were willing to accept book-splitting as a business decision--and publishing is a business, no matter how much we'd like to pretend otherwise--surely Tor should have to deal with some consequences to their decision? When the time came to nominate The Wizard Knight for awards, it was listed as a single book, an approach that Cheryl Morgan called "entirely reasonable". Apparently price-gouging is fine as long as it doesn't affect your chances of taking home a Hugo.

3 comments:

Dotan said...

Peter Watts' Behemoth was another author hit by this book-splitting policy, and Watts' was far from pleased with it:

http://www.rifters.com/real/author.htm

On his blurbs page (where he puts review quotes), he writes: ""Con" quotes rendered in grey concern book-splitting marketing decisions which Ain't My Fault!"

So at least some of the authors are grumbling, even if the critical reaction is meek.

gwenda said...

There's lots of grumbling, just most of it isn't public. I don't know any author who would be thrilled by this development.

But.

I'm actually in the minority of people who believe that A Princess of Roumania is still an intensely satisfying read all on its own. I've actually bought several copies for friends because it seems to me that Paul Park deserves the sales. Not to reward Tor for cutting the book in half, but to not punish Park with bad sales for their decision.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

There's no question that the backlash against book-splitting (and I'm glad to hear that it exists) hurts the authors more than the publishers, especially when you consider that mid-list authors like Charles Stross and Paul Park don't really have any say in the matter (what Gene Wolfe's excuse is I don't know). I just can't think of any other way to fight this development.