Monday, June 7, 2010
Is the Western dead? by Terry Burns
I’m in an invitation-only online group of western writers. I wasn’t sure why I was invited. This is a gathering of some of the most published names in the western genre and most have published books numbering up into the hundreds. My little thirty-some-odd bibliography didn’t really stack up. Then I discovered they were curious as to what it took to put books into the Christian market. However I managed to get invited, it’s a terrific group and I enjoy interfacing with them.
But right now they aren’t happy. It seems western writer Richard Wheeler (not a member of the group) wrote a blog pronouncing the “Death of the Western Genre” and basically saying good riddance. Can you say angry? This is a writer that has significant standing in the Western Writers of America organization, has won spur awards, and has written in the traditional western genre himself for years. This means many people think he is speaking for the organization itself. I am assured by the WWA President that he is not.
There is still a significant following for the genre, and some of us have intentionally been writing some western young adult titles to interest a new generation in reading westerns. You see, that’s the problem, those of us who grew up on Gunsmoke and Bonanza and Saturday mornings with Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey love westerns. Kids who have grown up on video games haven’t been introduced to them very much. Instead of writing off one of the most amazing periods in our history we need to be proactive about arranging this introduction.
There’s another factor involved here and that is the current trend to re-write history to suit ourselves. Don’t like the fact that slavery was part of our nation’s history? No problem, take it out of the history books. Think it is inappropriate that Indians and settlers fought and killed each other over western expansion? Simple, do away with the word Indians rewrite history to include little if any of this conflict. Don’t want to admit that America was a Christian nation? Re-write history to downplay the role of faith for our founding fathers and while you are at it try to take every reference to faith out of our government. I could go on and on. Are we interested in doing this to the old west as well?
I’m pleased WWA has reaffirmed their intent to continue to support and promote the genre western. Originally that’s what the organization was founded on. They have spread their net much wider since then incorporating all kinds of literature on or about the West. It has relegated the genre westerns to a much smaller role.
Further, There was a very interesting session on the future of publishing at the last conference I worked. A group of a dozen editors talked about where publishing was and where it was going. The bottom line was they felt the middle size publisher was disappearing. They think publishing is very much becoming a big versus small publisher situation with the smaller publisher utilizing non-traditional distribution methods, particularly online sales, more and more effectively. They also said that the ‘niche markets,’ that large publishers have always said were not worth their time, is the bread and butter of the small publisher.
I believe this why the large houses that have dropped the western lines are doing it. They have relegated it to be a niche market and not worth their time. It doesn’t mean the market is not there, but does mean that it is much smaller for them to do this. I recognized this trend over a year ago and started taking some of my debut clients into these developing small markets. Will it pay off? Is it worth the time of an experienced writer to be in this market? I guess we'll have to see how things develop.
But the thing about a niche market is this, it works the other way too. A niche market that starts doing well attracts the attention of a major publisher again. The major houses had Christian Fiction relegated to niche market status. Then the fastest growth area in publishing for several years was Christian fiction and they all started buying small Christian houses or forming Christian imprints in their house. If the demand for genre westerns increases in the small houses it could interest the major houses again.
These small houses operate on a model that allows them to make money virtually from day one, very modest revenue, but they keep their backlist in play for a long time. Maybe part of our strategy for advancing the genre needs to be recognizing the changes in the industry.
We hear about the western dying off a lot, but all genre fiction is cyclical. It has faded and rebounded before. Then along comes a high visibility western movie or TV show or such, and it bounces right back. I believe it is up to us to find ways to reach those readers.