The Trickle-Down Effect of Genre Bookselling

My latest column on Kirkus Reviews combines a couple of things that I’ve been looking to talk about for a while now: how did major changes in the bookselling industry change how books were being written and sold to publishers?

There was a bit of a convergence of topics here. Last week, I looked at the rise of paperback publishing and how that impacted the SF world. This week was a bit of an extension of that, looking at the effects of a paperback boom on authors. At the same time, there were a number of other things happening in the bookselling world: bookstores were rapidly changing as major chain stores rose out of suburban shopping malls, while the paperback boom ended, killing a lot of careers.

Some of this has some particular interest for me, because I used to work at a Waldenbooks in college, and ended up getting laid off when Borders went under.

Paradoxically, we see some of the genre’s best known authors doing exceptionally well for themselves as the 1980s progressed: authors such as Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert and Arthur C. Clarke each made millions on their new books, due in part to the way books were sold in the new stores.

Go read The Trickle-Down Effect of Genre Bookselling over on Kirkus Reviews.


  • I, Asimov: A Memoir, Isaac Asimov. Asimov recounts how Foundation’s Edge came about, with an encouragement from his publisher to write a new novel in the series.
  • The World of Science Fiction, 1926-1976: The History of a Subculture, Lester Del Rey. Del Rey talks a little about the late 1970s here, which was helpful for this piece.
  • Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert. Brian Herbert recounts how his father was talked into writing more Dune novels.
  • Arthur C. Clarke: The Authorized Biography, Neil McAleer. McAleer talks about how Clarke was talked into writing a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption, Laura J. Miller. Miller’s book is a very interesting look at the history of publishing, and has a chapter that was very helpful here.
  • Robert A. Heinlein: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988, William H. Patterson Jr. Patterson talks about how Heinlein’s books sold in high numbers during this period, but also specifically how they sold in chain stores.
  • Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, by John B. Thompson. This book contains a lot of information on the nature of the bookselling business, particularly towards the rise of chain stores.

Thanks are due as well once again to Betsy Wollheim and David Hartwell, who answered several of my questions.


3 thoughts on “The Trickle-Down Effect of Genre Bookselling

  1. I just read your article from Kirkus Reviews about how changes in publishing and book selling changed what was being put out there in the Sci-Fi Genre. Nice. I myself have been wondering “what’s going on with Sci Fi, Fantasy and speculative fiction in general when I find amazing books such as “The Humans” by Matt Haig in general fiction these days. I wonder, have speculative fiction books gotten a bad rap because folks think they are just ‘about gadgets’? Or is there a cultural shift in what we believe is ‘just a story’ and what is truly speculative now? and I wonder what the effect is of the shift in book selling in general on the publication and sales of Science Fiction. The author of “Station Eleven,” Emily St. John Mandel goes a stop further by stating definitively that her book is not science fiction because she didn’t invent any new technology… true, but it IS specultive. So my question is, has speculative fiction become (or returned to being) a ghettoized genre? and if so why?

    • That’s a complicated question, and it really depends on how you define science fiction. It’s one reason that this column that I’ve been writing exists: to examine that. Briefly, Science Fiction as it’s popularly conceived, came out of pulp magazines in the 1910s/20s, and was characterized by poor writing and stories. There’s been changes in style and story since then at major intervals, but how people seem to see SF hasn’t entirely updated along with the genre. I think that’s changing however.

      • Well, yes, I agree. We all have a slightly different take on what SciFi is… I can’t help but harken back even further, though, to the age of Romantic Science stories, and The Time Machine, etc… Anyway, thanks for your article(s). It’s nice to see the discussion happening, and now that I’m working at Bear Pond Books here in Montpelier, I’m always looking for ways to expand the speculative section here, as well as readership in that area. I, too, started off at Walden Books, home of the top 40 before it went down in flames…

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