Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Uncovering 'Overlooked' Fiction: A Contradiction in Terms?

My friend, book blogger, and fellow advice columnist at a certain national gay mag, Simon Savidge, recently made a blog about 'overlooked' fiction (and his post deals with fiction only, and not poetry, non-fiction or drama). He asked his readers where they discovered the kinds of fiction Fiction Uncovered features, which he describes as 'hidden gems'.

But for me there's an inherent problem in trying to discover/uncover this writing that's 'under the radar'. ‘Overlooked’ is a difficult term to quantify. In the comments, one person suggested Iain M. Banks' speculative fiction writing might be such overlooked fiction. But while Iain M. Banks’ SF writing may not be as widely known in non-genre circles as his work as Iain Banks, it’s still pretty mainstream and shifts lots of copies, depending on who you ask. In fact, I’d say most industry people would see all Mr Banks’ work as mainstream with strong sales, regardless of genre.

‘Overlooked’ and ‘under the radar’, in book terms, would really only mean a title that’s sold less than 1,000 copies (around 4,000 copies is the midlist authors’ average, again depending on who you ask), or a title that's sold a few thousand but perhaps over a very long period of time (I leave this interpretation necessarily vague). More specifically, it might mean a book that’s only sold a few hundred copies and that probably comes from a small or independent press. Or, as often happens, a book with a mainstream publisher that dropped off the radar and was buried because of low/disappointing sales. But remember also that 'disappointing sales' can vary wildly by author, publisher and book.

Fiction Uncovered still pretty much deals with what would otherwise be considered midlist novels. It doesn't really claim to unearth hidden treasure, although the 'uncovered' part of the title subtly places that suggestion in the back of readers' minds. It's very clever marketing--I mean, who doesn't like to support an underdog?

There is, of course, a very good reason to promote our midlist authors--especially since midlist authors are often left in limbo when ditched by bigger publishers, and they may subsequently struggle to settle into the very different expectations and demands of a small press outfit. Some midlist authors find the idea of self-motivated book promotion, and sales led by events and readings rather than big chain bookstores, a very different environment to the one they're used to. I have a few midlist friends (one whose book was even adapted into a TV show on the BBC), and they all speak of the frustration of editors who no longer return their calls, or don't want to hear about their new project unless it fits a very small niche. I feel for such writers, and have seen many turn instead to the small press. Tanith Lee has even bemoaned the disinterest of bigger publishers, and has had a wealth of small press releases in the last few years.

But, as usual, I digress, and this is a very different topic which I will address elsewhere.

Getting back on track, I guess the problem with trying to find real overlooked novels is that, by definition, you’re unlikely to stumble across them.

Once such gem I absolutely adored was Rhys Hughes’ The Percolated Stars. It was such a polished, yet satirical and whimsically beautiful novel, but is only available in a handful of places (you probably can get it on Amazon now, but 8 years ago when I first bought it, you couldn’t).

Discovering those real overlooked books would be a difficult feat, but I venture it's also an important task that should, if someone had the time/energy/masochistic tendencies, deliver some truly 'under the radar' greats.

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