TVA Baby front cover(TVA Baby, by Terry Bisson. Oakland: PM Press, 2011, 170 pp., $14.95)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

While preparing to write this review, I was musing on how many good small press books fall through the cracks, and how many execrable books from major publishers sell well. (Don’t worry, we’ll get to TVA Baby eventually.)

A recent example of that is the dreadful California, which Stephen Colbert enthusiastically pushed on his show, and which was issued by a major publisher, Hachette, not coincidentally also Colbert’s publisher. (He was open about this.) The book sold tens of thousands of copies and in July reached #3 on the New York Times bestseller list.

This is a somewhat special case, due to Colbert’s heavy promotion, but it’s also symptomatic of the inherent advantages held by major publishers.

What creates those advantages? A number of things. First, major publishers have more money for promotion than small presses, often much more. Second, major publishers have on-staff publicists who already have good contacts with the television industry and print media. Third, almost all major publishers are based in New York City, and there’s a very real New York bias in important parts of the media.

(If you’re a small, non-NYC publisher, good luck on ever getting a review in The New York Times or The New York Review of Books; also check out the publishers of the authors who appear on The Daily Show and [while it was still on] Colbert Report. In fairness, the standard book industry review journals–notably Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist–are good about giving small press books a fair break; but this doesn’t cancel the NYC bias in other parts of the media.)

In contrast, small publishers usually have small advertising budgets, few if any contacts in major media, and have to hire outside publicists (if they can afford it–many can’t) who’ll put in nowhere near full-time work.

Recent trends in the bookselling industry have only exacerbated this problem. Half a century ago, before the rise of the national chains and then Amazon, booksellers by and large were independent bookstores. Such stores routinely would order books and leave them on their shelves for a good three to six months, sometimes a year, before returning them. This ensured that books that received few if any reviews would be seen by large numbers of possible book buyers, and so would have a chance of selling well eventually due to word of mouth.

No more. Independent bookstores currently account for only 10% of book sales, and they have to be lean and mean, so no more leaving books on the shelf for six months. The chains? B. Dalton, gone. Waldenbooks, gone. Borders, gone. And Barnes and Noble has been cutting the number of its stores for years, and even more drastically cutting the number of titles its stores carry. And the length of time new books are on the shelves is down to perhaps four to six weeks. So, goodbye to the word-of-mouth ray of hope for small publishers. And goodbye also to the gatekeeping function independent bookstores  used to provide. (The independents tended not to carry poorly written, poorly edited, and poorly produced books.)

Compounding matters, over the last decade or so it’s become very easy and very cheap to publish both print-on-demand (paperback) books and e-books. This has resulted in a huge increase in the number of available titles, many of which are awful. Combine this with the current predominance of online bookselling, with its near-total lack of gatekeeping, and it becomes very, very difficult for even the best small press books to rise above the noise.

Then add in the tanking economy (for most people–Wall Street is doing fine), with its continuing unemployment, low-paying jobs, and declining median income (down an astounding 12% since 2001), and times are tough for small publishers and their books (which many financially stretched potential buyers regard as luxury items).

Which brings us to TVA Baby. It’s one of the deserving small press books that have fallen through the cracks.

It’s a collection of 13 short stories by longtime science fiction (and nonfiction) author Terry Bisson, and it covers a wide variety of topics and genres. Stories in it range from noir (“Charlie’s Angels”), to purely comic (“Billy and the Circus Girl”), to ’30s pulp sci-fi (“Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”), to sappy (“A Special Day”), to hallucinogenic (“TVA Baby”).

In most of the stories, Bisson’s dark humor is at the forefront, particularly in “TVA Baby,” which is grotesque but laugh-out-loud funny. Other standouts include “Pirates of the Somali Coast” and the other stories mentioned above, except “A Special Day.”

As with nearly all short story collections, there are some hits and some misses in TVA Baby; but the ratio of hits to misses is higher here than in the average collection. So . . . . .

If you enjoy concise writing and mordant humor, you’ll enjoy TVA Baby.

Recommended.

* * *

Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia.

Free Radicals front cover

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Comments
  1. […] I haven’t enjoyed a book of short stories by a single author so much since I read Terry Bisson’s collection, TVA Baby. […]

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