Many things set America apart from the rest of the world. Triumphalism is one of the more important distinguishers. From the time they drove out the British in 1776, Americans have hooped, hollered and blown their nationalistic trumpets with a gusto that is hard to match.
It’s not hard to see why. The average American genuinely believes that America represents moral values more than anyone else does. God, it seems, blesses America with metronomic frequency.
Some of this certitude has reflected itself in popular American fiction. Be it Tom Clancy in the last 30 years, writing earlier about America’s war against godless communists or now against god-filled terrorists; or writers like Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey and Oliver Strange writing about the 19th century Ango-Saxon conquest of the West; or even Superman comics, the tone is the same: “If you belong to the solution, join us; if you belong to the problem, we’ll take care of you.”
Many of us getting a bit long in the tooth now grew up with this fare. English novels were read by very few, and American-English ones by even fewer. Thus developed a small group of people who read a genre of pulp fiction — Westerns, as they were called — with a devotion that can’t be explained easily.
Then in the 1980s, these ubiquitous books, available at railway stations through A.H. Wheeler north of the Vindhyas and Higginbothams in the south, slowly started to disappear. By the mid-1980s, they had vanished entirely. They could not be found for love or money.
So it came as a marvellous surprise the other day when a colleague said that publisher Hachette was going to re-issue the Oliver Strange books, 10 in all, featuring the one and only James Green, called Sudden because of the speed with which he could draw his sidearm, a Colt, and kill the bad guys.
Why, we wondered and asked the Managing Director of Hachette, Thomas Abraham. Excerpts from emailed responses:
Why the sudden decision to reprint Sudden?
I’ve always kept an eye out for old favourites because I believe there is a definite throwback market that wants its favourites back — from nostalgia, if nothing else. And personally because the books deserve, I think, to be kept in print. And though the market isn’t necessarily large or easy to access, today’s short-run digital technologies allow us to produce these in right quantities. Pulp and/or popular commercial fiction, as a genre, has its own classics. I’d started a series at Penguin (where Abraham was earlier CEO) called Retro Revivals and reissued Modesty Blaise, and Madeleine Brent novels by Peter O’Donnell. I’d also acquired the rights for the complete Garth graphic novels which, however, never got done — too expensive finally at 3,600 pages.
Who do you think will read these dated books, especially when the ‘Western’ genre rings no bell?
I think the Western has stayed in the mainstream consciousness and rises to the forefront every few years. It may not be the blockbuster genre it once was, but it still has great tick over potential. Louis L’Amour has never gone off shelves, and every now and then there are experimentations with the genre — a lot of it cinematic from Eastwood’s Unforgiven to Brokeback Mountain to Tarantino’s Django Unchained, but equally in print form too.
There are great contemporary writers of Westerns like Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry. The Sisters Brothers and Smonk have attained cult status. But the 1960s and 1970s had the formula writing, and Sudden is amongst the best examples of that... these books had no literary merit but were just great entertainment. That entertainment value still stays.
What is the market size for this genre?
Very small... it is niche. But so are most genres today. Westerns and crime fiction (not necessarily thrillers) used to be the top genres in the 1970s and 1980s. Today they are almost gone.
How does the economics of such decisions work?
This is a niche, and hence is being published as a short-run digital limited edition. It is a collectible and thus has a box set... with an image forming across the spines. And we’ve sold to order, so the economics work out fairly well.
What about other Westerns? Will you be reprinting them too?
A similar selection for aficionados. There is a lot out there, but the day is past for full reissues. So we’ll be curating themed selections that we hope people will enjoy.
What other ‘properties’ are you looking at?
Quite a few. Coming up soon will be a collection of swashbucklers (the best pirate books) or the best foreign Legion stories.
Will you consider boys’ books like Biggles, William, Hardy Boys and the like?
Not those specifically, because they are still available. But yes... I would love to revive the Lone Pine series or Pocomoto or Ken Holt, for instance.
Or girls’ books like Mallory Towers...?
Also available — still in print and in bookstores. But, yes, one could assess the potential of Kit Hunter or Trixie Belden.
Is Hachette trying to find resonance among a young audience to Westerns such as Sudden, or targeting those in their 40s and 50s who grew up on it? If the former, then you have a marketing job on hand. How do you intend to push this genre?
Well, a bit of both. The first targets are the throwbacks — those who want a nostalgic blast from the past. Those who scour the used bookstores to get a copy, but can’t find one. They can have the whole set now. But, equally, we’re timing this alongside the release of Django Unchained in end-March here, so there will hopefully be a ‘Western resurgence’, even if niche. And as to marketing, well we’re putting the word out (and no other major marketing) because, finally, these are going to be sold by word-of-mouth.