Sunday, December 10, 2006

Westerns ARE selling -- Richard S. Wheeler

For your consideration. From Richard S. Wheeler.


While perusing the website of Western Writers of America I came across a November 20 press release that startled me. It said western sales were up. According to the Neilsen BookScan, which covers 70 percent of all book sales in the country, western titles were up 9 percent in 2005 and so far this year, up 10 percent. What's more, the release said, western titles listed in Books in Print had risen from 543 in 1995 to 901 in 2005.

The news startled me. It was contrary to all I've been hearing from NY publishers and editors. I queried the author of the release, wanting more substantiation, but she didn't respond. So I contacted Cara Milo at Nielsen and asked a number of questions about what sort of books were tracked. She replied as follows:

The sales of fiction western books have risen in the last two years; western nonfiction, academic books about the west and juvenile westerns would not be included in this trend. This increase is seen in units sold which is what BookScan tracks. As for your other question, we do not obtain data from distributors. I’ve attached a list of our panel of reporting retailers.

What interested me here is that BookScan does not track sales by distributors such as Anderson News, which have always been the great sellers of western fiction. I'm glad sales are up in bookstores, big box stores, chains, etc., but this data should be tempered by the absence of news about how distributors are doing.

As for Books in Print, it should be remembered that it does not distinguish between books published commercially and vanity books done by print-on-demand publishers such as PublishAmerica and iUniverse, etc. Also, POD publishing has made it possible for authors to put dead books back into print. At my request, Forge put eight out of print Skye's West novels into POD form, and they are back in print. Through the Authors Guild I put 15 reverted titles back in print. Sunstone Press will put six more reverted titles back in print. My friend Jeanne Williams has 45 titles listed in the Authors Guild back in print program, some of them westerns. Between Jeanne and myself, we may account for around 50 of those in-print titles. These trends easily explain why western titles in print are growing, but it scarcely means there is an upward trend.

But are commercial publishers doing more titles? No. It is now possible to see what they are doing by checking their websites. For example, HarperCollins did ten mass-market westerns this year, but has only one, an Elmore Leonard reprint, scheduled for the first quarter of 2007. Pinnacle, once a stalwart, is still doing some "William Johnstone" novels, and will do three next year, which is down sharply. But it has only one traditional western scheduled for 2007, a Max McCoy novel. It did three in 2006, two L'Amour imitations and one labeled a western but set on the east coast of Mexico. In short, my check of some publishers' websites indicated that there is no flood of new titles.

"Why such an upsurge in westerns?" the WWA press release asks, breathlessly.

I wish I knew.

11 comments:

Russell Davis said...

A few notes, for those interested, and these are my opinion only:

1) Publisher websites are notorious for being woefully out of date. Trying to determine what a publisher is going to do in 2007 from their website in 2006 is like (to use the cliche) trying to teach a pig to sing.

2) Here's a "breathless" notion for all western writers, struggling to make it these days. How about - instead of screaming "the sky is falling" and waiting for the editors, publishers and agents to save our genre - we actually go out and work together to save it ourselves. Instead of spending time trying to cast shadows over any glimmer of possible good news, perhaps we should celebrate it and highlight it to bookstores in our area. Instead of agreeing that the genre is doomed, perhaps we should talk about what makes it great, about why it's so important.

3) Western writers should stop supporting bloodsuckers and thieves. Anyone working in this industry knows exactly the people I'm referring to.

With all due respect to Mr. Wheeler, his constant wailing and gnashing of teeth about the state of the genre - which I've seen on a variety of blogs and newsletters, etc. - do absolutely NOTHING to improve the situation. It fixes NOTHING to repeatedly point out the sorry state of one's career, but do NOTHING about it. Worse still, you are contributing, Mr. Wheeler, to the problem by articulating these perceptions in a public forum.

Be a part of the solution or at the least, shut up, stand aside and let others try to save something important, rather than continually casting stones at the very foundations of the genre that you would most likely claim to love.

Folks, if you love the western genre, do yourself a favor. Don't listen to this kind of bullshit. Go out and buy a western instead. Share it with your kids and your grandkids. Watch a western movie together. Talk about the importance of the only truly American form of literature. Support small press and university press efforts. ASK YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE TO STOCK MORE WESTERNS by someone other than Louis L'Amour. Do something, do anything that you think might help, but please... don't run around saying, "the Western is dead" and lamenting its loss.

Now, I'm sure my comments will no doubt engender some fascinating email and phone calls. I can hardly wait. I'm almost breathless.

Regards,
Russell

Tribe said...

Russell's comments are right on the money. Wheeler, particularly in a now defunct blog, would carry on and on about how there was some East Coast establishment conspiracy against westerns, and he'd get particularly indignant when anyone would ask for specifics or indeed, challenge his arguments. I don't find him particularly reliable on anything.

Anonymous said...

Kathleen O'Neal Gear, running for the WWA executive board, says this in her platform:

Western fiction is dead in America. There are several reasons for this and it's long past time that our organization stepped up to the plate and tried to do something to fix the problem. My suggestions follow:

1. The western has gone out of fashion because the story lines are, for the most part, just plain tired. Part of this can be attributed to the narrow view New York publishers have of what constitutes a western. Most publishers still, unbelievably, want shoot-em-ups so they can put men-with-horses-and-guns covers on them, which appeals to the seventy-something audience, but few others. The other part of the problem rests with writers. We just don't seem to get it. There are reasons that the TV show, "Deadwood," and the movie, Brokeback Mountain, are successful. Both are new and innovative. Their story lines create bridges across time that allow viewers to relate the past to their modern lives. Creating that bridge is absolutely necessary if the Western is going to survive. But cover treatments have to make that bridge as well. This organization must work with publishers to develop a new look for the genre. For years we have left this to New York, thinking they know better than we do. Apparently not.

2. Putting "western" on the spine of a book condemns it to the publishing ghetto, and placing that book in a pocket labeled "Western" dooms its sales. WWA needs to pressure the publishing industry to kill the "Western" label...

3. We need to change the name of our awards. There was a time when "getting your spurs" meant something. It no longer does. In fact the name draws snickers from people in the publishing industry. We have even heard editors say that they think putting "Spur Award Winner" on a cover decreases the sales of the book...

Richard S. Wheeler

Russell Davis said...

And generally speaking, she makes valid points, except:

1) Western fiction is dead. No, it's not dead. It's changed. It's evolved. It's snuck into other genres like mystery or SF, but it's not dead. What we need to do is be able to show people what makes stories in these other genres western in nature.

2) The publishing industry is driven by readers and writers. It's our job to be sure to educate readers as to what a "western" is and can be. Why be ashamed of the label when it's accurate? Why not instead say, "Damn right it's a western. Here's what makes that important." Why not educate publisher and distributor sales forces and work with them to rebuild rather than force them to change what they do?

3) The reason that "Spur Awards" are now meaningless has NOTHING to do with their name and EVERYTHING to do with the fact that there are 16 of them every year. Good God! What value is there in having so many categories of awards which are so closely related? The award has been devalued because there's too many of them, not because of what it's called. Don't believe me? How many people know why an Oscar is called an Oscar? Or a Tony? It's not the name that matters, it's the perceived value.

That said, at least she's trying to fix things, being proactive.

Cheers,
Russell

Roddy Reta said...

In fairness, I've read Mr. Wheeler's now-defunct blog, and I would hardly say that he acted "indignantly" against anyone who disagreed with him.

He has always debated people in a civil manner, unlike some other people, who tell him to "shut up" and refer to his arguments as "bullshit." Whatever the merits of your opinion, you hurt your own credibility with such abrasive rhetoric.

Anonymous said...

Wow. This kind of vitriol aimed at a man like Richard Wheeler makes me sick. It's why I keep my head low on the web. I learned my lesson long ago about making statements about the state of things in the publishing business. It is considered by many as complaining. And there are always plenty of people out there ready to make their bones by complaining about the complaining (which I find very ironic).

I can't think of many people more qualified to discuss the business of publishing westerns than Mr. Wheeler. But I've watched in awe over the years as he has come under attack - always from people who have done nothing themselves to enhance the art of the western. And usually from people who would be really grateful if some publisher would put out their first novel as a PBO or if they could just finish their WiP. In other words, people who really don't even have a dog in the fight. He has never responded with anything less than a gentlemanly reply.

He's certainly made of better stuff than me.

I would have told many of these people to fuck off.

But that's just me.... I'm a cranky sumbitch.

Terrill Lankford

Russell Davis said...

Ahh, but Roddy I DID get your attention, didn't I? As for calling an argument "bullshit", well, is there any point in giving serious credence to an argument about a very large industry based almost entirely on one person's experience and flawed data?

As for Mr. Lankford's reply, I can only tell you that I have dogs in this fight and have for quite some time. And there are plenty of people in the western and numerous other genres who can attest to that.

I respect Mr. Wheeler's body of work as a writer, but I don't respect continual complaints offered without solutions suggested. You're right, in that Mr. Wheeler replied like a gentleman. Alas, his reply wasn't his, but a platform statement from someone else. And a flawed one at that.

Perhaps it's time for some vitriol in westerns. Perhaps if we raise our voices internally and spur (pun intended) some serious discussions, real solutions will be offered up in the western writing community. The "maybe it will get better if we just complain quietly" approach hasn't worked so well.

Regards,
Russell Davis

Anonymous said...

Terrill,

You are most kind and I am grateful to you. "Tribe" writes from behind the cloak of anonymity, so his views carry no weight. He was a visceral opponent when I had a blog. I think most readers discern what is substantive and what isn't and dismissed him.

The death throes of a major American literary genre have occurred beneath the periscopes of the journalists of literature and the book world. These people don't care about Western fiction, and know their readers wouldn't care either, which is why the genre is all but gone.

But I have hoped to record some of this debate and conflict, and Ed Gorman has graciously given me access to his fine blog, so that those who might still care might be informed.

Again, thanks.

Richard Wheeler

prairie mary said...

Okay, smart guys, let's see some brainstorming. Like:
1. more interaction with the trendy Cowboy & Indian mags
2. one central place where reviews of "Westerns" are posted
3. more reviews of "Westerns"

As for Wheeler being only a moaner, I've probably read more Wheeler Westerns and historical fiction than most people, and I have to say he's an innovator in the first degree: experimental forms, religious content, and the only writer I know who explores the frontier newspaper editor, except for nonfiction. Aside from that, and even though Western writers in general seem to be quite gallant about helping women and "children," I know how many writers he has personally supported and encouraged. Among them was "Pictures from an Expedition" which became the Montana Book of the Year that everyone read at the same time.

And beyond all that, I still say that the great flowering of Western TV was a response to war -- so get ready for an audience returning from Iraq -- and if someone would start translating the classic Westerns into Spanish, there would be an automatic and enormous set of readers who would snap them up. The morality of violence -- whether fistfights or gun battles -- has become relevant again.

Prairie Mary

Chap O'Keefe said...

Are we taking the western a little too seriously? The original press release triggering this debate spoke in terms including "the literature of America's soul". The suggestion has been made that the label "western" should be dropped altogether, a ploy already tried by one publishing company that dubbed them "historicals". Maybe it's time to stop portraying reading and writing westerns as a kind of Patriotic Duty and return them to the field of entertainment. The British indie publisher Robert Hale Ltd continues to buy and publish ten, mostly original western novels every month. A friend, prolific Australian writer Keith Hetherington, supplies at least one nearly every month -- sometimes two. They are not weighty tomes, but brisk reads in the pulp fiction tradition that have a niche market with the lending libraries in the UK and Commonwealth countries. Among US contributors to the Hale series are Billy Hall, Owen G. Irons and Terrell L. Bowers. If you want to know more about Hetherington, his colleagues and a whole scene that isn't moribund, click to www.blackhorsewesterns.com

Jack Giles said...

No way is the Western dead. I still read them by the bucket load. And when I'm not reading them I've re-started writing them.
One short story (the first Western short that I've written) that's been accepted into an anthology. Also, a book coming close to completion.
But, then, here in the U.K. we have a publisher (Robert Hale) who still believes in the Western.