Three Monkeys - Ten Minutes #3

Is Science Fiction as a literary form in a state of crisis? A lot of people seem to think so. I have heard this opinion from a number of professional SF authors, critics and in various articles in magazines and on the Internet. By crisis, they are indicating that it is becoming much harder for "quality" SF to get published and harder for SF writers to make a living in the genre.

Science fiction readers are long familiar with Sturgeons law. This indicates to me that there have always been concerns over the quality of SF published. Likewise, budding authors will be aware of the difficulties of breaking in to the professional markets. However, the tone of the complaints is that in the '90s, SF publishing is beset by problems that were not present in the past. I have touched on some of these in past articles, but this time I will try to briefly describe as many of these new negative factors as I can identify.

Science Fiction publishing has become very big business. While the promotion of the genre from fringe to mainstream business may appear positive, there is a downside. In the past, the big companies pretty much left their SF divisions do their own thing. This meant that the editors were allowed to indulge themselves by printing works that had fringe appeal or were in some other way "worthy" without necessarily being commercially viable. These editors were usually fans of the genre and sympathetic to its artistic needs. Such is no longer the case. Editors now do not have an SF background and they are strictly profit driven. The managers of the publishing houses now have too much money at stake to allow them to indulge artistic whims as their predecessors may have done.

The number of companies publishing SF has declined significantly over the past decade. In particular many small presses have disappeared. As you might expect, such small presses cater more for niche markets than the big publishing houses. As each publishing house has a "style", the reduction in the number of publishers must result in less variety available to the reader.

The number of distribution channels is also declining. This also has the effect of restricting the chances of fringe publications making their way to your local (or on-line) bookstore. Again the variety available to the reader is reduced.

A third factor in the reduction of variety is that the number of independent bookstores is declining. Most bookstores are now part of big chains, most of which make their purchasing decisions centrally. The decisions as to which titles appear on the shelves is now in the hands of a small number of buyers in the head offices of these chains.

The big publishers, distributors and book chains are aided in their profit seeking cause by modern computerised sales tracking systems. These systems can give very accurate and up to date sales figures on titles. The upshot being that titles which are not selling well are immediately withdrawn from sale.

Effective sales tracking also means that the publishers can accurately track the success of an author. In the modern environment, authors are only given a few chances to produce blockbuster sales figures or they are dropped even if their sales have been steady. No longer does an author have the chance to steadily build up a following as they may have done in the past. Authors like Asimov, Heinlein and Silverberg would never have become famous under this regime. I am sure you can all see the irony here.

What we are seeing is a parallel to the situation with television where everything becomes ratings driven. This leads to lowest common denominator programming in TV and it appears that the same thing is happening in SF publishing.

Another thing to consider is that the back list no longer exists. Because of a change to US depreciation tax laws, it is no longer financially viable for publishers to hold large warehouse stocks of titles which are no longer current. As soon as a book is pulled from the shelves, it is recalled and pulped. This is why you can rarely find volume one of a trilogy on the shelves when volume three is released.

The number of SF titles published each year in North America has remained pretty constant for quite some years now. The problem is that the proportion of those genre titles which can be considered new SF books in the traditional meaning is declining. There are several reasons for this, not least being that a number of older titles are being re-issued because there is no back list as referred to above. This means that the number of new titles is declining.

Media tie-in books are on the increase. Not only do they grab an increasing portion of the publishing pie but their low quality dilutes the overall writing standards and lowers the expectations of new readers.

The Science Fiction genre is becoming a refuge for writers from others genres. In the '70s and '80s, authors were leaving SF to write in horror or thriller categories because there was more money there. Now the trend is reversed and authors from those areas are now keen to have their works published as SF. It is obvious that many titles being listed as SF are actually hi-tech thrillers which a few years back would have been put in a different category. The same applies to horror titles which are now being packaged as fantasy (under the overall SF banner).

Fantasy is an interesting case. During the late '80s and early '90s fantasy tree killers gained considerable ground at the expense of the rest of the genre. Now it appears to only be holding its ground or even slipping slightly. However it is still holding its share of the marketplace better than other sub-genre forms, with the possible exception of SF humour.

I should state here that the above observations come principally out of North America. It is my observation that the British market is thriving. There appear to be more titles coming out and a greater willingness on the part of UK publishers to try something a bit different compared to their US counterparts. This latter point has always been the case of course, but I believe that it is a bit more obvious now.

In fairness to many of those who have been pointing out the problems of the publishing industry, they have also been looking for possible solutions. Without exception these involve technology. Answers to the problems include electronic publishing, electronic distribution, just in time printing and portable electronic books using "smart paper". So far none of these have made any inroads - electronic publishing is very limited, electronic distribution so far just means on-line bookstores which have the same problems as the physical ones and the other technologies are not yet mature enough to use.

So what can we do? I suspect that the answer is "not very much". However, we could all at least make the effort to not settle for lowest common denominator publishing. There are still some excellent publications out there. We should seek them out and make them the subject of our purchasing decisions. If publishers are driven by sales then anything we can do to increase the sales of the quality products will be noticed on the bottom of the sales analysis charts. In reality, any action we take is likely to be trivial in the overall scheme of things, but I would argue that making intelligent purchases of intelligent books is of personal benefit anyway as you get better books to read which is the whole point anyway.