Science Fiction: Alive and Kicking

Kat Goodwin examines the state of SF and one of the most often talked about debates in science fiction – is SF literature dying – from a publishing perspective. Kat is a staff member at SFFWorld and has worked for many years in book publishing. She is currently foolishly attempting to write a novel.

Science Fiction: Alive and Kicking

by Kat Goodwin

For most of my life, I’ve been told that science fiction is dying. In fact, perhaps no other community — fans, critics, authors and publishers — has been as persistently pessimistic about the imminent demise of their favored literature as science fiction.

The latest version of this countdown of doom declares that we are living in an age of wonder and discovery, with rapid technological development, and so science fiction can no longer manage to predict and provide a vision of the future, and has thus become largely irrelevant. (This may come as a bit of a shock to fans from previous decades who were told that they were the ones living in an age of wonder and technology, where science fiction had become irrelevant.)

Given that science fiction authors have borrowed from scientists and speculative scientific theory far more often than the other way around, this idea would seem to be something of an exaggeration. Additionally, SF writers have always written with the understanding of their readers that their vision of things was far from accurate that the scientists might turn out to be wrong, that theory may have to be adjusted or abandoned due to new evidence, and that the flying cars the scientists said were due any day now, might turn out to be too impractical to build.

What such complaints are really addressing is the issue that written science fiction doesn’t seem to be selling as well as it did before, especially in comparison to the considerable growth of brother genre fantasy. In some areas, you could make an argument that this is not really the case. Category SF was initially a niche market of magazines and cheap paperbacks for boys and young men, seldom ever sold in bookstores. When they did finally manage to move into the bookstores, they were kept in a small, dark, furtive corner at the back, as if that section was, as author Terry Pratchett so succinctly puts it, “a V.D. clinic.”

Now the SF section, along with fantasy, is usually smack in the middle of the bookstores, and has been greatly expanded, with displays all over the store. There are more SF titles being published than ever before, and these books are getting reviewed more widely than ever before. Women make up about forty percent of the readership, while the demographics of the audience now range widely in age and ethnicity. More SF authors are getting published internationally than previously, and in many countries, there is a thriving SFF small press industry.

Yet, there is no question that sales per individual SF title have dropped, and while SF has benefited from the fantasy juggernaut, it has not currently equaled it. The reasons for this apparent decline, however, have much more to do with market factors than with a cultural and psychological shift away from science fiction. Three circumstances that have been particularly important in recent decades are:

1) Hollywood’s Desertion: From about the 1950’s to the 1970’s, Hollywood and written SF were engaged in a mutually beneficial partnership in which Hollywood hired SF authors for film and television writing or as consultants for adaptations of their own works. This partnership brought written SF massive exposure and free publicity, a steady influx of new fans and increased interest and sales. Some of the major authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke became, if not household names, at least well known to the public, with occasional guest shots on talk shows.

But in the 1980’s, Hollywood became less interested in adapting SF works. They still put out SF films, even seminal ones, but were more likely to use their own screenwriters to do them. Cyberpunk SF failed to take in Hollywood, and the partnership began to die off. With media less interested in fiction authors as well, written SF lost many of the benefits of such cross-marketing and the sales that came with it.

2) The Great Paperback Depression: The early 1990’s were not a good time for the U.S., with a recession and an expensive war. Other countries developed similar economic problems, and publishers, booksellers and other industries had to tighten their belts. Supermarkets, pharmacies and non-bookstore vendors began to carry smaller numbers of books and to deal with fewer wholesale suppliers, causing the wholesale book market to collapse and shrink.

Much of this wholesale market was mass market paperback and most of that was fiction, so this development caused a wide sales slump, especially for genre markets that published mainly in the mass market format. Westerns, a small category market that had been lagging, was dissolved completely. Romance frantically worked to branch into other areas like suspense and women’s fiction. In mystery, it was a blood bath from which the genre has only begun to truly recover in recent years, with mid-list authors cut from publishers’ lists, acquisitions slowed to a trickle and specialty bookstores going under.

Science fiction also took a huge dent in sales, with mid-list authors particularly hard struck. So did the fantasy category, but fantasy, being a younger market still experiencing an in-coming rush of new fans, was able to rebound faster, thanks in part to the popularity of several large epic series. In the mid-nineties, the increased interest in children’s/YA fantasy and the phenomenal sales and media interest in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, followed by the hit Potter and Lord of the Rings movies, helped turn fantasy into a sales powerhouse. Since they shared the same publishers, SF benefited from this funding and publicity exposure, but didn’t look as stellar on the growth front by comparison.

3) Men Don’t Read Fiction: It’s always been a given in publishing that men are not that interested in books and when they do read, they usually prefer non-fiction. But in the last two decades, men and their junior counterparts have been reading less and less fiction of any kind, leaving publishers scrambling to attract them or appeal to more reliable female audiences. For male favorites like thrillers and SF, this decline has been particularly noticeable.

But does this mean that men aren’t interested in SF stories? Given the success of SF movies and television, that games with spaceships are outselling games with elves, and that there is no shortage of sci-fi tributes and coverage of comic cons on the Internet, it seems more that it’s written fiction in general that doesn’t appeal to guys, rather than SF content. That books are not as widely available and are concentrated in bookstores, rather than sold in places men like to shop, such as electronics and music stores, also seems to be having an effect, one that could be correctable.

So rather than being singled out for destruction, SF instead appears to be standing at a crossroads of opportunity, where it may be able to significantly improve its situation and build on its potential growth. Some of the issues that SF will have to deal with in the future include:

1) Establishing New Bestsellers: A few new, non-tie-in, category SF titles in the upper registers of the major bestseller lists will gain increased support from booksellers and awareness from a new wave of possible fans. This is not as pie in the sky as it sounds. Several SF authors such as David Weber, Timothy Zahn and Greg Bear have been attracting readers and climbing up the ranks into top slots.

2) Developing a New Partnership with Hollywood: Hollywood has renewed its interest in adapting written SF, along with fantasy. So far, they’ve been sticking mostly to famous, older authors and legendary classics, but a number of recent option deals indicate they are expanding their search parameters. The success of several recent films adapted from written SF, mangled though they may sometimes be, has already brought increased interest and sales to the SF market.

3) Creating a Bigger Base in Children’s/YA Fiction: The rapid expansion of middle school and YA fiction has provided opportunities for kids SF, along with core fantasy titles, to attract hungry young readers. A growing number of SF titles are doing just that, such as the bestselling Uglies series from Scott Westerfeld and James Patterson’s Maximum Ride.

4) Enlarging the Party: Written SF has always been one of the most organized and interactive communities around, with strong connections to comics, games, the Internet and visual media. But in a time when trans-media is the name of the game, written SF needs to make sure it remains on the radar by continuing to reach out to fans of other mediums. Recent comic book and game adaptations of SFF titles, expanded programs at SF conventions and increased publisher presence at conventions for other industries, online magazine sites that cover books, film and games news, are the sort of things that can garner written SF more attention and the chance at new readers. It also offers opportunities to develop valuable sales outlets outside of bookstores.

5) No Longer Telling the Media that SF is Dying: The non-genre media, having little interest in fiction writers and being mostly clueless as to what is going on in SF in any case, is prone to repeat whatever it’s told, and SF authors and critics pronouncing SF’s time of death every five minutes — on the Internet, at events and in publications and interviews — thus tends to propagate, even though the pronouncement has been routinely wrong. No artistic work ever earned much success by promoting itself as a failure, and since written SF is far from failing, perhaps a brighter outlook might encourage people to feel that SF is worth checking out — that it is part of, not excluded from, this particular age of wonder and discovery.

What is clear is that there are serious challenges ahead for the entire written fiction market in the coming years, but also many avenues open to authors that were rarely available before. Genre fiction must contend with everything from fewer store vendors, to electronic piracy issues, increased production costs, multimedia competition and also partnerships, expanded globalization, and new technologies and sales formats.

While SF has been rolled some by economic and market factors, it has weathered those storms and grown in many ways in spite of them. In fact, perhaps more than any other sort of fiction, SF is uniquely equipped to face the issues occurring in publishing and out in the world, dealing as it does with the exploration and exploitation of possible futures, the concerns of the present and the effects of the past. As the illuminator, rather than merely the predictor, of our restless curiosity, written SF is poised to take advantage of a time of rapid change and emerging technologies – the very technologies it examines. Rather than dying, SF seems ready to flourish. Indeed, if you look at the busy activity in publishers’ expanding SF lists, in media coverage, and in the continuing sci-fi lovefest on the Web and in other media, you could say it already is.

Kat Goodwin

Leave a comment