What If We Didn’t Call It ‘Pulp’?
There’s been a bit of a debate going on lately amongst the rank and file of modern pulp writing enthusiasts as to whether the moniker ‘New Pulp’ is viable or possibly even a detriment to book sales. I find it kind of interesting, since some of the folks turning their backs on the term were the first to embrace it. Heck, New Pulp as an appellation was coined by a bunch of us sitting around in the after hours of a convention, not wanting to let go of that cozy camaraderie. Now they want to change the playing field on me.
I’ve sat out on this debate up until now, having my own turbulent thoughts on the subject, which I wanted to put in order before I made any kind of judgment call. So having mulled it over, my conclusions kind of follow that infamous line from Romeo and Juliet: A rose by any other name, would smell as sweet. And conversely, manure, no matter what you call it, still stinks. The bottom line is, the content sells, not the name. So if you’re putting out books you believe people really want to read, they’ll buy them as long as the price is reasonable, the format is accessible, and the stories are enjoyable. If the stories are terrible, the books aren’t going to sell, no matter what you label them. Before we start calling ourselves something else—like ‘genre fiction writers’—we’d better make sure we’re not wrapping up and re-gifting the same old holiday fruitcake in fancy new paper. You might fool a few people for a while, but the consumer public, which has the attention span of a gnat coupled with the memory of the most ponderous pachyderm, is not going to forget being lured into buying something that turns out to be yesterday’s leftovers, even on a silver plate with a fancy side garnish. Something has to change if we want upwardly mobile sales; something more important than what we call what we do.
Now let me say this up front, I am not here to chasten, vilify, or any way insult my New Pulp writing and publishing peers. Most of you are friends or at least friendly acquaintances, and I have the utmost respect for how hard you work at what you do. I’ve been very grateful to have been embraced as part of this indie community of authors creating action adventure stories with larger-than-life heroes and bringing them back to the reading public without Madison Avenue trendiness dictating what we offer. I’m proud of each and every one of you; you’re like part of my extended family. That said, I’m not going to mince words if I think we’re headed in the wrong direction. While I’ll acknowledge the sagging economy isn’t helping anyone, I don’t think the primary issue with dismal sales of New Pulp books has anything to do with what we call our work. We’ve missed a fundamental reason why sales aren’t moving out of the fanboy nostalgia/convention circuit into a more mainstream market. I’m going to put it bluntly—the average reader doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the pulp of yesteryear. They want stories that excite them today. The more you serve up what pulp used to be, the narrower and more pigeonholed your buying market becomes.
Now if you’ve got supportive sales and are happy and comfortable with a day job while doing this kind of writing or publishing as a spare time labor-of-love; then hey, more power to you! I totally understand, and I’d be the first one to cheer in your corner. I have tremendous respect for the grand pulp tradition that came before me. Some of those writers went on to make the big time, and others labored in obscurity behind house names and generic branding while feeding families and keeping body and soul together at a time when the world around them was reeling from economic hardships and the threat of war. Via their work, they all brought to life an inexpensive escape mechanism for a reading public that was inundated with daily bad news. But we have to realize, we live in a far different age than those pulp pioneers. This isn’t the 1940s anymore, because the world is far more accessible and diverse via all those electronic gadgets we’ve been snapping up over the last 70 years, and the overall education level of our readers has risen too. We can’t keep churning out the same old stories the same old way, and expect them to magically find a new audience. It doesn’t matter what you call the stuff you’re writing; what does matter is that readers enjoy it enough to start an underground grassroots buzz, so that others come looking for your work.
We’ve got to get readers excited enough to continue talking about what we sold them. The best way to do that is to pay attention to what they’re reading, watching, and discussing in popular entertainment, and write to that. If you take a hard look at what Classic Pulp accomplished, it had nothing to do with trying to fit some mold of what pulp should be. In those days, they were selling stories people wanted to read at that time, not trying to emulate styles and plots that worked three generations before. Oh, there was a lot of copycatting, but mostly to ride on the success of some lucky contemporary who hit a nerve with the buying public. If New Pulp, or Genre Fiction, or whatever the moniker-du-jour might be, is going to not only survive but thrive and endure, then we’d better start thinking about writing as a business that sells to a general audience. There might be niche markets for 78 RPM vinyl records, rotary dial phones, and 5-1/4 inch floppy disks, but you’re going to have to work super hard to make a living selling them.
Look, if I had all the answers to what makes people pay to read something, I’d be supporting myself writing. I’m not, at least not yet; but I have listened carefully to the feedback I’ve been getting. As a New Pulp insider, I can see where the problems are between what readers want and what we can afford to give them. We don’t have as much of an inexpensive product as our pulpy forebears did, because while the technology exists to make cheap paperless copies, not everyone who loves to read is on board with that yet. In the meantime, our dead tree and ink versions are a bit pricey—especially when indie companies are churning out something every month of the year. People tell me they don’t want to pay $15-$20 every six weeks for relatively short paperback books written by authors they aren’t familiar with. New Pulp books are most often soft cover and relatively lightweight on page count; both to keep the pace of the plot intense as well as the actual book price reasonably affordable. Yet there is a perceived value balance between purchase cost and length of the tale. Readers are telling me they’d like a bit more meat for what we’re charging, and I’ve been thinking hard about how that can be handled. No one has said a word about whether what I do is called ‘this’ kind of writing or ‘that’; they just want a good story that draws them in and lasts long enough to feel like what was paid was worthwhile. And if there is a sequel, they want to read it before they forget what happened in the first book. Eight months to a year seems to be the sweet zone for that.
Another thing I’ve been thinking heavily about is not competing with myself for readers. Because of recent health issues, I’ve had to slow down my writing pace and leave the keyboard to become more active, which means taking on less projects overall. I don’t see where my readership has suffered one way or another. I’d like to think that with the less hectic pace, the quality of my writing has improved. What it has done, is help me see the difference between being part of a multi-author anthology and a book of multiple short stories written solely by me. While my anthos haven’t caught on as well as my novels—mainly because I have a more regional following and people say they are confused as to what book is a sequel to another—the feedback I’m getting has been encouraging. Outside of my area, I’ve done far better in mixed author work, where my co-writers have some New Pulp notoriety that helps sell copies that contain one of my stories. There the reviews have been very positive. That tells me I am giving people what they want and expect in an interesting read. Once again, the fact that whatever I was involved in was or wasn’t called ‘New Pulp’ had little to do with it. Even when I’m writing to a protocol set by others, my own style tends to come through and I’ve slowly been adding fans. I’ve always insisted on writing the kind of stories I love to read, and that’s one of the things that seem to be working for me.
No, I don’t think what we call our writing is keeping us from reaching a broader market. If New Pulp wants to grow, it has to become what today’s reading public wants it to be. We called it ‘New Pulp’ because the basic underpinning is fast paced, action adventure stories that are reminiscent of the days of yore, when a ‘guilty read’ could chase away the troubles of the time. There’s plenty of need for escapism in this far too complex world, but not all of it has to hearken back to formulas that worked way back when. Maybe today’s reader wants more complex and vulnerable characters in either contemporary or genre comfortable settings with a plot that has unpredictable twists. Let’s give it to them then, and forget about what we’re calling it this year.