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Why SF Is Dying: Photo Evidence

Screen shot 2009-12-17 at 08.11.00

I count SIX fantasy titles, FOUR dark fantasy titles, and ONE science fiction title (which was the new Hitchhiker book). There was nothing of note on the opposite side (strange gift-type things). Oh, and I didn’t count Goodkind, because he doesn’t write anything in the genre. 🙂

This is in the only real bookstore chain in the UK now, and they centralise their decisions – which means this pattern is rolled out across the few hundred of their stores. These decisions are, of course, based on what people are buying – it’s a business, after all. (See how the circle works?) There was no paperback table there (although just before I entered the section, there was a massive table of paranormal romance / post-Twilight books).

See what I mean now? Because the BULK of people will be buying these books in the run-up to Christmas. You can do the sums yourself.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

16 replies on “Why SF Is Dying: Photo Evidence”

Seriously, that dead horse must be well flogged by now 🙂

My point is this. If it is the case (and I remain unconvinced, Metamorphosis, perhaps. NOT Death.) what do you want me, or anyone else, to do about it?

Actually that was my point. I was seriously asking, what can be done about it? I read plenty of scifi and very little fantasy and I doubt I am alone. Is your point that there is nothing that can be done and we must watch it die slowly?

Ah, I see. Well, what can be done… not a lot, really. Some of this has cultural roots, but unless you can encourage thousands of new SF readers onto the streets each month to support new core SF writers (those that get stocked in the SF section), then I can’t see things changing.

In all honesty I need to read more scifi beyond the Black Library. I have started but on the Kindle which doesn’t really help the print authors unless they can persuade the publishers get their book onto the Kindle. I did a review of a straight to Kindle scifi book that really impressed me. You may be right that print scifi is dying but not the genre itself which I believe will thrive online and as ebooks.

Well if i was a sci-fi fanatic I’d still remain in denial and point out that more copies of the sci-fi book had been sold than all the rest 😉

So there’s less sci-fi on the shelf but it sells even better than a popular TV tie-in!

“On a serious note, if a book is thick do shops buy less copies of it?”

Unless it’s a Stephen King or Robert Jordan, yes. Erikson’s new book ran into problems because it had a strictly-enforced embargo date on it, but because he’s a fairly low-profile author bookshops weren’t willing to have multiple copies of DUST OF DREAMS clogging up the storeroom shelves for several days and simply ordered the book in for the following week instead. As a result, enormous numbers of MALAZAN fans couldn’t find the book in their local bookstore on release date or for several days afterwards.

Adam – are you sure about that? Waterstone’s scales out things from central (now the Hub) which means that stores have little say in how many copies they get if something is price promoted – which the last two Malazan books were. If that was the case, then it was abysmal bookselling in your store – especially as Erikson (if I remember correctly) was one of those authors who had fans that would rush in to buy his book in the first week.

I wasn’t there because I was out of the country or I would have been, but from what I heard attendance was considerably down at the annual Xmas British Fantasy Society gathering in London and their were grumblings of things being bad all round. And in this economic climate they undoubtedly are. Just when you thought as a would-be writer things couldn’t get any tougher there are more hoops made to jump through which involve making money for someone somewhere. I made a half-joke elsewhere that, just as now you are constantly hearing that without an agent to take you up you can forget about getting to publication (one set of gate keepers, the effectiveness of which is dependent on their relationship with editors and publishers primarily and not the content they are peddling), there will come the day when the agents won’t consider you unless you have been on some creative writing programme of note. Yet another bottleneck to squeeze our fat would-be author egos through.

The stuff exists there, writers still get their heads down and write. But the people who have an eye for making money out of *anything* colonise it, monopolise it and homogenise it. That Waterstone’s is the only mainstream High Street bookchain remaining has an air of inevitability about it. The net book agreement business clearly has not been good. Like British pubs, independent bookstores are withering on the bough of the once mighty oak.

I went into Border’s along Charing Cross yesterday. A shell of human thought it was. (I did see a one copy of Nights in hardback going for half price, Mark! But you were in good company, Daniel Abraham and the like still had a few copies on the shelves of the virtually non-existent SFF shelf remaining – There were lots of that Goodkind thing elsewhere in no particular section whatsoever, the mighty arms crossed world-chaging Randian sage would no doubt be pleased, purely objectively of course).

Ironically at the end of the bookshelf with SFF on it, it was just labelled ‘Science Fiction’, but there was hardly any of that there.

The only hope for SF or SFF or genre in general is if the writer gets his or her head down and writes the best thing he or she can. While writers who attempt to move with the market aren’t going to keep genre alive, they are going to kill it (conforming and compromising a vision to what sells doesn’t raise the bar, it lowers it). X Factor fiction for all. There are very, very few writers who make a full-time living out of it. Most don’t. It was ever thus, though (unless you go back centuries when early novels were written by quite a lot of men of leisure and of independent means.) But I would argue that the one main way to keep this or that genre alive is not to dumb down, is not to try and appeal to all and sundry in order to sell books. Display some pig-headed intellectual integrity. Clearly, given this thread and Mark’s previous ones and the one on SFF World (which is about ten pages long now and had Elizabeth Moon contribute) there is a market for it. Bow to the flow of homogenisation in thought and written deed and it surely will die.

Mark said elsewhere that it is a lot of factors and that is one of them. What can writers and would-be writers do? Rage, rage against the dying of the light! Don’t make it so f*****g easy for the publishing Simon Cowells.

One thing to do: form author collectives. Like the Write Fantastic of old, the Murder Squad etc. Be proactive in spreading the word. Then engage with each other on platforms and forums, multi-genre (because whether we like it or not we are a categorising species, it’s what we do to define ourselves). Instead of highlighting everything that is supposedly different, highlight what is the same, only in a different milieu, the art of the thing in relation to a given genre’s identifiable substance. (It would be nice to see panels like that at the SFX Weekender, for example.) It will make a difference. A marginal difference maybe, but it will. the genre will die when it dies intellectually first. The publishing Cowells are seeing to that. Rage against the f***rs.

Thanks for the heads up Wert. I can see how the policy makes sense from a business point of view. A better compromise would be for them to keep restocking the shelves whenever 2 copies disappear.

Mark, all this talk about the Hub sounds very scary and dare i say it sci-fi 😉

I just discovered your blog yesterday and coming into this a bit late. I love science fiction, but go through phases when I don’t read it at all. I prefer sci fi / fantasy over urban or romance fantasy the majority of the time. In fact rereading Dune right now.

I guess the only thing we can do is talk up the sci fi and get more people to read sci fi. I’m hosting a hugo sci fi challenge, carl at stainless steel droppings will be hosting his sci fi experience at the end of the month, doug at world with out end is doing a tremendous job of talking up and showcasing sci fi books

I don’t think you are beating a dead horse at this point. There are a tremendous amount of folks talking up urban fantasy right now. Just have to tip the bar a bit back in the other direction. Just put your book on my wish list. Looks good.

Ach Mark, it’s nothing new:

Who Killed Science Fiction? won the Hugo Award for Best Fanzine in 1961. The Fifties were rife with talk about the death of science fiction, and Earl Kemp’s symposia of so many sf pros and prominent fans summed it all up.

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