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Monday, 3 January 2011

Wild West eMonday - Guest post Chap O'Keefe

The Archive hands over the reins to Mr Chap O'Keefe, western writer and the creator of the hugely popular Misfit Lil. Chap's never been one to hold his guns and he makes some valid points in the following article.

The style in which Hale is launching its western ebooks foray underlines that the marketing emphasis will be not on the books' titles or authors, or their unique selling points, but on the publishing house's imprint. The item promoted is "The Black Horse Westerns Collection No. 1."

All very well and good. There are and have been genre-fiction imprints more important than their individual author contributors. But those imprints have been built in the first place around authors' names and reputations. Think "Gold Medal" and you think John D. MacDonald, Charles Williams, Richard S. Prather, and so on. The English readers of romance who made Mills & Boon a paperback success were also followers of authors – say, Carole Mortimer or Penny Jordan or Essie Summers – rather than the imprint as such. Brand identity kicks in later and figures more for the general public than the people actually reading the books.

Perhaps what we have in this launch into a new marketplace is a case where the imprint should be more important than the authors, and nothing that follows is intended to alienate the publisher, or those being paid to publicize the venture, who are a sales and merchandising agency for independent publishers. These people have many years' knowledge of the book industry. They have a list of high-profile clients. Whatever is being done, will be done how is best seen fit by business professionals.

Also, I don't believe that anything an author says in the light of long and honest experience is going to alienate the publisher or its advisers. That is a canard put about by those of limited confidence and the hopelessly timid.

When news of the ebooks bundle first broke in late November, one writer embarrassingly claimed at a Yahoo chat forum that it was a regrettable leak by me. He said Keith Chapman "was most definitely speaking for himself and working to his own agenda in encouraging the Archive to reveal information prior to its official release when he knew damn well that some discretion was necessary." He also said (rightly) that a fellow bundle author was the source of my information.  The announcement should have been made "through the proper channels," he said, not through the "heavy-handed publicity approach."

Many of us begged to differ with his findings. The idea that we should all shut up so one or two writers could be told things "in confidence" by the publisher was absurd. What was the use of such exciting information if the recipient couldn't pass it on or use it without first getting a specific clearance? That would be insulting and demeaning, considering the effort some have put in over the years.

Moreover, the complaining writer's charge against his bundle colleague implied he'd ignored a direct request from Hale MD Gill Jackson not "to chat privately with other authors." This was most definitely untrue. I have sighted the correspondence. No such stipulation was included. Indeed, there was apology for the haste with which the matter had to be progressed since the ebook collection was scheduled to appear in little over a month's time.

Here's one of my favourite Black Horse Extra Hoofprints (Sept. 2007), which you've probably read before:

"Promotion of their books under a Black Horse umbrella does not appeal to all of the writers by a long chalk – at this website or on other Net platforms. An author has forwarded to Hoofprints this comment made at the Grumpy Old Bookman blog. Martin, an archaeologist in Stockholm, wrote, 'I really don't understand what imprints are for. Or labels in the music industry. I can't even be bothered to check which publishers have put out a certain book: why would I pay any attention to the imprint? They must just lead to increased costs for the publishers. I keep track of writers. Is the idea that I might read and like a book from, say, the Snugglebunny imprint, and then blindly buy a lot of other Snugglebunny books?' "

I hope the new readers the ebook bundle attracts will treat it as a "sampler", rather like those boxes of biscuits that used to go on sale around Christmas at an attractive price and in celebratory packaging. You nibbled the contents. You enjoyed your favourites. You ignored any that didn't suit your taste; maybe could even afford to throw them out if the price had made the sampler a bargain!

But later you went out and bought whole packets of the ones you liked best.

The ease with which you did this depended on ability to recognize the biscuits you wanted and their availability. You didn't want some other biscuits from the same manufacturer on the basis that "all our biscuits are of the same high quality". You wanted more of the one you really liked.

I've been following the fortunes of Black Horse Westerns closely for more than 18 years. I'm convinced, from observation and correspondence, that the publishing company values and promotes all BHWs equally. In a sense, this is entirely laudable. But the argument "all these books are the same" and author names (or pen-names) don't count is beyond my grasp. To individual readers, with their own likes and dislikes, the books are not the same.

Meanwhile, the publisher's policy that obliges the busiest writers to use three, four or more pen names has an unfortunate side-effect of bolstering the illusion, especially among the non-western-reader buyers who select them for public libraries, that all the books are the same; that only the line "A Black Horse Western" matters.

After all, didn't the Tyler Hatch story you read equal the ones you'd 
enjoyed by Jake Douglas and Hank J. Kirby and Rick Dalmas? Well, yes it did, 
and unsurprisingly so, because they were all written by one person, 
Keith Hetherington. But if you didn't know that, you could make the 
assumption a BHW with any author name on the cover would be just as good. 
You might even assume the quality you liked came solely via good editing 
or selection at the publishing house.

What do the four books in the ebooks bundle have in common?
A rich back list ripe to be reissues as eBooks

Their authors all currently write BHWs under more than one name and all wrote their first contributions in the period 1995-2001. This does not make them BHWs' longest surviving writers; John Dyson. J. D. Kincaid, Steven Gray, and Elliot Long, to name just four, are still with the line and were there before the bundle's lineup.

The bundle's authors haven't sought promotion of a kind likely to have been seen by ebook buyers. Only one of the four bundle writers has a publicity profile on the Net, and even that does not acknowledge his work under the name in use here. Another, Keith Hetherington, has appeared on the odd occasion on the Net to oblige his admirers, contributing news and views to the shared Black Horse Extra, and to give an interview at Steve M's Western Fiction Review.

Going by the individual stories' blurbs, another characteristic the collected books have in common is that none mentions any involvement of women characters, let alone strong, independent ones or ones that might contribute dramatic tension to the selected stories, as it does in several of the best BHWs published over the years. The other day, I re-read a post at Cullen Gallagher's excellent Pulp Serenade in which he quoted Inez Salinger, executive editor of Gold Medal Books, from 1955:

"Taboos? We have none, really. We ask only for good stories powerfully told that capture the reader early in the game and hold him on the edge of his chair from there on in."

My view is that the ebook reader in 2011 will expect no less. The argument that nothing stops a child picking up an unsuitably adult BHW, as might happen in a public library, will surely be redundant for ebooks.

Each writer has his own "voice", which again stresses the bundle's main worth, which is as a sampler for the reader not already familiar with Black Horse Westerns.  As an established reader of BHWs, for example, I naturally have my preferences. I would buy two of the books in this bundle, but with so many other calls on my books budget, the other two I would not. Why buy a book that you know, from experience in reading the author's other titles, is unlikely to satisfy your taste in fiction?

At the end of the day, I will probably place an order for the bundle. But it will be mainly from a desire to be informed, to give support to the exercise – and to see many more ebook BHWs published!

– Chap O'Keefe



Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Might I say I agree with what Chap O'Keefe says here. It is obvious some writers are better than others and some readers will prefer the style of certain writers over others. Thankfully the Black Horse line caters for all kinds. And I do hope many of you buy the Black Horse eBook bundle and that Robert Hale LTD continue to release their back catalogue in eBook and as individual titles or at least bundles collecting certain authors. It's a brave new world and the Old West is leading the way.

Nik said...

Yes, and sampler records were also sold in the 70s, a good marketing ploy but it didn't last.

But I too would like to see collections of single authors' work, if not single books.