Well then. I thought as much: some of you got what I was saying, a good chunk of you didn’t. Some of you liked what I said, many didn’t. But I’m surprised it was so civilised – I had expected people to go on forums and do whatever is the forum equivalent of using my face as toilet paper.
Some took the time for smart rebuttals on their own sites. SF author Philip Palmer took a stand. Mark Chadbourn asked who let the dogs out, and added some cheerful thoughts. And Wert thought it was all down to trend, and mentioned the state of the industry a few decades ago (a good read). But that’s not where the crux of my argument lies, and avoids the core issue, as I’ll explain later.
Point One: Some Clarification.
There was a lot of naming of good SF authors in the comments section – fantastic, this is one of the good aspects of such a discussion. I’m all for enhancing genre diversity.
But, just because you can name a few strong selling SF authors doesn’t mean a genre is surviving in the long term. Think how many books that makes a year. Your, say, ten authors – if they all write a good book a year, that’s ten good new SF books a year. Is that what you really think will save a genre? Less than one a month? Is ten good books each year enough to sustain such sales in an environment where bookstores have to compete with supermarkets, and sales margins are being throttled out of the industry by ever-powerful chain buyers?
Go into a bookstore and look at the table displays (and buy some books). That’s the frontline of the industry. Mark Chitty did. Too far away from a store? Look through Amazon bestsellers and see how many more Fantasy novels there are compared to SF. Whilst I would never dismiss discussion of art – I love it, and indulge in it often – sometimes we need a reality check.
Forget what has happened forty years ago – the book industry doesn’t give much of a shit about that. All it cares about is frontlist sales – that’s what’s selling at the moment.
An explanation: if novels don’t sell, bookstores don’t want much more like that. Stores have to compete with supermarkets at one end, and Amazon at the other (who can afford to discount more because they don’t have walls). This discount on new titles means that new titles are cheap to buy, which means that more people buy them, fewer buy backlist stuff (old classics), which means that they sell less of those. And bookstores want to focus more and more on frontlist, and so on.
Oh, and by the way, money crosses palms in order for those select few books to be featured in table promotions. A lot of money. You think the booksellers put them out there on a whim? That’d be lovely, wouldn’t it. But no. These days, some stores even charge simply for books to go on the shelf, not even in a promotion. So that’s why these days it’s all about frontlist. Big money is shaping the industry. It’s an immensely difficult environment for publishers to do their thing. Stores, of course, want to make money, and this means sticking with the profitable books where possible.
That’s why talking about what sold forty years ago is a redundant argument.
What we have is a vicious circle. If there are only a few SF books selling well each year, that isn’t enough room for it to acquire significant market share/nurture a culture. It attracts fewer new readers. And as Dark Fantasy rises, this will only squeeze SF out further.
Neal Asher said:
I just have to wonder if the same argument was propounded when the bookshelves turned black with horror titles a while back (70-80s?). I think all forms of fiction go through a lulls then resurgence as they update themselves, and I feel SF is one of the best at doing it, because the writers themselves (usually) are interested in current science and its implications.
Simon (Spanton) said:
Exactly. Sort of. I’ve been thinking about the collapse of the horror market that followed that 80s glut in realtion to all this.
Over publishing led to the bottom falling out of the horror market and various people prophesied the death of the genre (and we all looked at horror film on video as the new way for horror fans to get their fix) and we all nodded our heads and said ‘Yes! Afterall look what happened to Westerns.’ But now the horror genre is making a strong return on the shelves.
I really don’t think this is same as what happened to horror – that was a case of publishing more authors than the fanbase could sustain, much in the same way as is happening to celebrity memoirs at the moment.
What is happening to SF is a negative feedback loop, reinforced by the way modern publishing works, as well as some potential cultural problems. And what were those cultural problems?
Point Two: Interesting Tangents / Questions Raised.
There were some really interesting points raised in the comments section. Richard Morgan was astute in pointing out:
The big zeitgeist shift that’s really coming into play here, as far as I can see, is the infantilisation of consumer society, and the death of challenge. There’s not enough space here to get into the many and massive ways in which modern consumer culture goes about this infantilisation, but suffice it to say that where the SF/F genre is concerned,the message has gone out, loud and clear, that in order to make successful artefacts of mass entertainment, you must not challenge your audience with anything that a 14 year old American mid-western teenager can’t instantly relate to. Exhibit A – the last Star Trek movie: the future and all it has to offer, crushed down in conceptual terms to fit inside the comprehension gap of a teenage boy from Iowa. What are the challenges facing this vast multi-species star-faring culture? Well, bullying from your class-mates, getting caught cheating on tests, sassy girls who won’t give it up, adults who doooooon’t understaaaaaand your teen pain, and big, stroppy guys with tattoos.
Actually, I think his entire comment does need to be looked at, since there’s some brilliant points for debate there. Risk – now that’s an interesting topic. Is fantasy too risk-free? I could certainly believe that, but I’d go on to say that risk isn’t everything to casual readers. I’m certainly glad Richard took risks when he came over to the fantasy genre, since it adds to diversity. How many other fantasy novels took risks, and what exactly does it take for something to be a risk, a challenge? And does risk-taking translate to poor sales performance?
And Laura said:
It is a boy’s club, indeed. Women in those stories are not exactly the way women look at ourselves today. There are too many sexist books in SF in some way, more than in Fantasy, where some women are capable to be witches or princesses or queens.
A simple enough statement, but could this be true?
When I said initially that more women read books, this is really, really important. They’re the one spending most money on books. It is as simple as that. I hate making a gender issue out of it, but If the majority readership isn’t interested, in a climate where there are said to be fewer and fewer readers, you need that majority to be spending money on the stuff you write or read.
EDIT: Photo Evidence.