Author Earnings recently released their statistics for 2016 book sales. As industry hands and book reading fans poured over the results, one of the more interesting facts is that science fiction sold the least of all the major categories. This is not a surprise to those who have been following the shrinking sales of the Big Five in this category, although it is still unwelcome. Unfortunately, the worst is yet to come.
A survey of modern science fiction shows a repeated pattern of extinction events. In the 1950s, the pulps died. At the end of the Crazy Years of the 1970s, magazines died as the primary medium of science fiction and backlists withered away. The 1990s and early 2000s killed off the midlist writer. And, as the same old song plays of magazine sales drying up, rumors of publisher woes, and publisher wisdom telling authors that science fiction cannot sell, we stand on the verge of the next great crash for the genre. That this crash is happening in the 2020s and not in the 2010s is due to the 1990s’ publishing woes lasting into the 2000s, pushing back the date of the upcoming crash.
Each crash came about at the intersection of a change in the publishing industry and soft sales. The pulps failed as digest and women’s magazines grew profitable. The novel grew ascendant in the 1970s, and changes in tax laws made backlists a tax burden. Reliance on Bookscan and other sales tools sent publishers looking for blockbuster bestsellers instead of growing their midlist writers. And, in the current day, ebooks are proving just as disruptive, with more than 80% of all 2016 science fiction sales coming from ebooks according to Author Earnings. But while writers cannot control the changes in the industry, they can at least avoid the mistake that repeatedly led to soft sales:
Or to be more proper, literary realism. This is not the same thing as factual accuracy, as even the hardest SF technothriller falls outside the realm of literary realism. Rather, the realism described here is the literary realism as that ushered in by William Dean Howells, who
…proscribed writing about “interesting” characters–such as famous historical figures or creatures of myth. He decried exotic settings–places such as Rome or Pompeii, and he denounced tales that told of uncommon events. He praised stories that dealt with the everyday, where “nobody murders or debauches anybody else; there is no arson or pillage of any sort; there is no ghost, or a ravening beast, or a hair-breadth escape, or a shipwreck, or a monster of self-sacrifice, or a lady five thousand years old in the course of the whole story.” He denounced tales with sexual innuendo. He said that instead he wanted to publish stories about the plight of the “common man,” just living an ordinary existence.
This avoidance of the fantastic, the exotic, and the sensational is directly opposed to the spirit of science fiction, to the extension of an idea into a speculation of the unknown. Rather than extraordinary people doing extraordinary things, or even ordinary people rising to the occasion in extraordinary times, literary realism is fascinated with ordinary people doing mundane things. In the 150 years since Howells proposed it, literary realism became the primary philosophy of literary fiction, and every attempt by science fiction to become more literary has also included a fascination with his realism. And this realism tanks sales of fantastic literature. For example, when Campbelline writer Babette Rosmund took over as editor of The Shadow Magazine in 1946, she introduced changes to the stories that fell in line with the realism en vogue with the new generation of pulp editors:
While the writing in this new pulp was palatable, the major problem was that The Shadow no longer existed in it. Instead, Lamont Cranston became the hero, solving mysteries with the police. All hints of a secret identity were ignored. The Shadow lost all his superhuman qualities. His guns remained holstered, his laugh rarely pealed across the pages. Removed were the cast of supporting characters and the villains. The agents and the gadgets. The Shadow’s laugh and his blazing 45’s.
Under her direction away from the fantastic and exotic elements that were essential to making the Shadow, “the magazine fell back to bimonthly and then to quarterly as sales continued to fall.” A similar drop in sales also plagued Doc Savage under Rosmund’s leadership.
This is the reason that science fiction as a publishing category nearly died off in the 1990s. Things have improved a lot in this century, but that doesn’t help the perception that the writers who toiled in the successful, but less accepted, subgenres didn’t exist at all.
I mention the literary part of the genre because it held its strongest sway in the short fiction categories. It’s easier to maintain a magazine with literary pretentions than it is to maintain a book line with the same attitudes. A lot of sf book lines died in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Some magazines, including the one that I used to edit, lost a vast amount of readership when those literary attitudes I just mentioned took over at the turn of this century.
This coincided with the rise of slipstream fiction. The current plunge coincides with the uptick of realism brought in by intersectional politics, which seeks to impose a narrower grade of realism on the genre, as instead of a common man, these writers explore the plights of specific and numerically smaller minorities. What might start as the examination of the plight of the common man gets pushed aside for the common woman who gets pushed aside for the common Hispanic woman who in turn gets pushed aside for an even smaller minority subset. And the sales continue to fall, and publishing continues to writhe with the changes caused by ebooks. For a struggling genre, the worst is yet to come.
However, there is a shelter for authors in the upcoming storm, one that has time and again proven reliable for authors: adventure stories. This is not setting specific. Science fiction’s hits are spread throughout the entire spectrum of hard and soft science fiction, from the technological fantasies of 20,000 Leauges Under the Sea, Jurassic Park and The Martian, to the scientific-marvelous speculations of War of the Worlds and Fantastic Voyage, to the planetary romances of Star Wars, Dune, and Halo. Each one is a tale of adventure and extraordinary acts, at odds with literary realism’s ideas of the mundane, and each has found a home in popular culture as a result.
Adventure builds audiences. Doc Savage and The Shadow both rebounded after Rosmund departed Street & Smith, regaining their audience with the return to their fantastic adventures. Although both were later cancelled in the sweeping cut that murdered every Street % Smith pulp with the sole exception of Campbell’s Astoudning, Will Murrary points out that the reason was not tied to flagging sales:
Oddly, Doc Savage was not canceled because of lagging sales. It was, by all accounts, healthy. But Street & Smith was growing fat and respectable with its women’s magazines like Madmoiselle and decided that its pulps and comic books were not what the company wanted to be all about. It was a classic wrong-headed business move.
Murray, Will. Writings in Bronze (p. 213). Altus Press. Kindle Edition.
Also, at a time where audiences were supposedly clamoring for increased realism, Amazing, with its implausible and outlandish Shaver Mystery underground adventure, set sales records that no science fiction magazine has yet to break. The further adventures of Star Wars and Star Trek popularized media tie-in novels, frequently gracing best-seller’s lists and paying for the rest of the genre. More recently, Kristine Kathryn Rusch describes how some magazines thrived in the lean times of the 1990s:
On the other hand, some of the sf magazines grew in circulation. For example, Asimov’s Science Fiction grew in overall circulation after Sheila Williams became editor. She got rid of a lot of the slipstream fiction (the stuff you couldn’t tell from realistic fiction) and purchased a lot of space opera and adventure fiction.
Since adventure sells when realism does not, the way to survive the upcoming crash is simple. Embrace the fantastic and the exotic. Embrace adventure.
Avoid literary realism.